By Andrew Carter, McClatchy Newspapers –
GREENSBORO, N.C. — In the moments before everything changed, North Carolina celebrated its 87-73 victory against Creighton here at the Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday night in the third round of the NCAA tournament Midwest regional.
The Tar Heels (31-5), the top seed in the Midwest, spoke with pride and confidence about going to St. Louis later this week for the regional semifinals. They spoke with a sense of accomplishment after a thorough beating of the No. 8 Bluejays (29-6) — a victory that represented one of North Carolina’s most complete performances of the season.
John Henson, the North Carolina junior forward, spoke with resolve after returning from a wrist injury, and across the locker room P.J. Hairston, the freshman, was describing why the Heels’ 3-point defense had been so successful against Creighton, one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting teams.
And then, after five minutes or so, North Carolina coach Roy Williams walked into the locker room. He stood near the front, a blank, sad expression on his face. A North Carolina basketball team spokesman raised his voice, and asked media members to clear out. The cameras and reporters left.
The locker room door closed. It swung open a few minutes later, and word began to spread: Kendall Marshall, the sophomore point guard who had perhaps been more instrumental to the Tar Heels’ success than any other player, had suffered a fractured scaphoid bone in his right wrist.
Back inside, after Williams had told his team the news, the celebration was over. In an instant, a joyful UNC locker room had become sullen. The loudest sound was quiet, followed by the murmur of interviews.
“No one thought it was serious,” North Carolina freshman Stilman White said of Marshall’s injury, “because he sat out for a little bit. We thought maybe he was just shaken up. And he got right back in the game I think like a minute later.
“But obviously the news is a little bit worse than we thought.”
White, the Heels’ backup point guard, played five minutes — most of them coming after Marshall could no longer play through his pain. Marshall, who led North Carolina with 18 points and 11 assists, suffered his injury with 10 minutes and 56 seconds to play.
He drove the lane, attempted a layup and endured a hard foul from Creighton’s Ethan Wragge. Marshall remained in the game but he felt pain, he said, “Any time I tried to dribble with my right hand.”
“I was a little worried when they started pressuring me,” he said. “But luckily I was able to get up the court — found (Harrison Barnes) a couple of times, he hit some daggers.”
Barnes finished with 17 points, eight of them coming after the Bluejays had cut North Carolina’s lead to 12 with 5 minutes and 21 seconds to play. But nobody was in the mood to talk about that for long. Or about Henson’s 13 points and 10 rebounds in his return after sitting out three games with a wrist injury of his own.
“It was a great win for our team, great win for our kids, and it was a team game to say the least,” Williams said. “… But it’s sort of overshadowed by what’s happened to a wonderful young man right now.”
Marshall returned to the locker room, sat in a chair and answered questions for as long as reporters had them. His eyes were red and watery. He wore a large ice pack on his right wrist. He tried to smile.
“I’m extremely pleased that we’re in the sweet sixteen,” he said, referencing UNC’s 31st trip in school history to the regional semifinals. “You know, we fought through a lot as a team. We’ve taken some tough losses.
But we still found a way to battle back. That’s what I’m most excited about right now.”
UNC’s medical staff didn’t rule Marshall out from playing again this season. His status is yet to be determined. Even so, according to the website of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the recovery time from a scaphoid fracture can be as long as six months.
Scaphoid fractures are common basketball injuries, a UNC spokesman said, but it created the most uncommon of scenes on Sunday: A team walking out of a building after a dominant victory feeling more like it had lost than won.
Though Marshall didn’t want his teammates to feel that way. While they were subdued, Marshall tried to remain upbeat. He spoke through his pain, physical and emotional, and he managed to crack a joke, too.
Asked if he’d ever been seriously injured, Marshall said he hadn’t. A sprained ankle, his junior year of high school, had been his worst injury.
“And I thought I was the man,” Marshall said, “because I played the entire game with it. I was like, oh, man — this is like some (Michael) Jordan-type stuff.”
As it turned out, Marshall played several minutes on Sunday with a broken right wrist. Now UNC will wait to find out if they were the final minutes he plays this season.