Dexter Strickland dunks the ball against Darius Johnson-Odom during the second half of the East regional semifinal.
Those double-digit seeds that pull off upsets in the first weekend are one of the things that make the tournament great. But only for those first few rounds – when some of these teams hit the second week, they're just lunch for the higher seeds. That was the situation in San Antonio, where Kansas beat 12-seed Richmond by 20, and that's what happened in Newark, where UNC took hold of the game early and never let go, walking away with an eighteen-point win over Marquette.
From the first possession, where John Henson blocked a perimeter shot seemingly from the paint, Carolina was in control of the game. Shots didn't fall for either team early – it was 10-8 Marquette at the under-12 timeout – but once the rims became a little kinder to the Heels, there was no stopping them. They flustered the Golden Eagles on the defensive end, nabbing eight steals in the first half and keeping their opponents out of the paint. They also started getting offensive rebounds and muscling the ball into the hoop, denying the Eagles fast break opportunities. The combination was deadly for Marquette; they were 6-30 from the field, 0-8 from behind the arc, and managed a shocking 0.27 points per possession. It as 40-15 at the half, and Marquette was going to have to come out of the locker room an entirely different team to make a game of this.
So how did the second half begin? John Henson block, layup Carolina. Dexter Strickland steal, layup Carolina. Another Strickland steal, layup Carolina. UNC's lead would reach 33 at his highest, and if the Tar Heels kind of lost the plot in the minutes that followed, it's tough to blame them. Future UNC opponents will concentrate on those minutes, when the Golden Eagles went to a tough zone defense and found their rhythm on offense. Carolina also got a bit lackadaisical with their passes, which didn't help. But this wasn't the disappearing act of earlier games, and at its lowest, Marquette cut the lead to... 14.
At that point, Leslie McDonald hit a three that, as was astutely pointed out, came from the same spot where Danny Green missed against Georgetown. It was the start of a 10-0 run for the Heels that only ended when a timeout was called to get Blue Steel into the game. So don't hold the mental lapses against UNC; it's tough to play with a 20+ point lead, and they never let the outcome really be in doubt. Tyler Zeller wouldn't let it happen, as he finished with 27 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. Henson had his ninth consecutive double-double, along with five blocks to put him within two of Brendan Haywood's season record. And Harrison Barnes would get 20 points and nine rebounds, as well as being the spark for the team through most of the tough stretches of Marquette zone.
But this was the defense's day and they did their job well. Dexter Strickland held Darius Johnson-Odom to a paltry seven points, and Butler and Crowder faired little better. It's telling that Marquette's leading scorer was little-used Davante Gardner, who had the bulk to throw around inside against Zeller. UNC got an easy draw this round, and used it wisely. Now they're in their fourth regional final in five years; the competition will be tougher, but this team is finally playing well enough to handle it.