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Marquette (22-15) jumped out to a 10-8 lead less than eight minutes into the game, but then North Carolina (29-7) flipped the proverbial switch and exploded past the Golden Eagles with a 19-0 run that made the second half a mere formality. Buzz Williams's squad cut its deficit to 69-55 with 4:23 remaining but UNC dismissed any thoughts of a miraculous comeback with an 8-2 spurt.
Blue Steel entered the game with 1:16 left on the clock and UNC holding a 81-57 lead.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 27 points and also grabbed 12 rebounds, while Harrison Barnes added 20 points and nine rebounds, including seven offensive boards. The freshman forward became the first Tar Heel freshman to score 20 or more points in his first three NCAA Tournament games.
John Henson contributed 14 points and 12 rebounds, while Kendall Marshall scored seven points, handed out seven assists and pulled down four rebounds.
Davante Gardner led Marquette with 16 points and Jimmy Butler (14), Jae Crowder (11) and Junior Cadougan (10) also scored in double figures. North Carolina shot 41.9 percent (31-of-74, 5-16 3s) from the floor, while holding Marquette to 36.5 percent shooting (23-of-63, 2-of-16 3s). The Tar Heels forced 18 turnovers while committing a season-low seven errors. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Golde Eagles, 48-42.
INSIDE THE GAME
Setting the Tone
Entering Friday night, North Carolina had trailed by double digits in the first half of four of its last five games. The Tar Heels missed 11 of their first 15 shots against Marquette, and while the Golden Eagles held a 10-8 heading into the second media timeout, there was an obvious difference in the two teams.
UNC looked comfortable, but was just unable to convert some solid scoring opportunities. Marquette, on the other hand, looked both nervous and tentative, as if this Sweet 16 stage was bigger than they expected.
One of the talking points heading into this game was how toughness would play a role in determining the victor. But when North Carolina delivered a deadly uppercut with its 19-0 spurt, the Golden Eagles were never able to pick themselves up off the mat. So much for a dogfight going down the stretch.
Despite the relatively slow start, North Carolina continued to pound the ball inside to take advantage of its significant size advantage. Meanwhile, Marquette appeared to tighten up as UNC's man-to-man defense refused to allow any easy looks at the basket.
Over the final 11:36 of the first half, the Tar Heels shot 56.5 percent (13-23) from the floor and committed just two turnovers, while Marquette missed 15 of its final 17 shots (11.8 percent) and coughed up 7 turnovers.
"As a team, we've been in the opposite situation of being down at half, so this time it was nice being up and we just wanted to continue to press and continue to keep the pressure on them," Barnes said.
Marquette's 20.0 percent (6-of-30) shooting and 15 points in the first half both stand as the second-best defensive marks by UNC in NCAA Tournament play.
Pounding the Ball Inside
Everyone sitting in the Prudential Center and watching at home knew that North Carolina wanted to capitalize on its significant height advantage over Marquette's merry band of post players, most of who checked in at 6-foot-8 or shorter. The only question was whether the Golden Eagles would allow the Tar Heels from utilizing that advantage. After all, Marquette shut down Syracuse big man Rick Jackson last Sunday.
That question was answered with a resounding "no" as Zeller and Henson scored UNC's first six points and 12 of the first 20. By halftime, the Tar Heel tandem had combined for 24 points, 17 rebounds, nine offensive rebounds and three steals.
But that success didn't come easy. After the first three baskets of the game, the Golden Eagles started sending double and triple-teams at the UNC bigs, but Kendall Marshall jump-started his squad's 19-0 spurt by penetrating into the lane and forcing Marquette to respect his driving ability.
"Everybody knows that we like to work from the inside-out – I think most teams do," Marshall said. "They were smaller than us inside, so we attacked inside like we do every other team. They did a great job of doubling down and our bigs were being pushed off the block a little bit, but I think once our guards started making plays, they opened up a little bit more for our bigs."
With his game-high 27 points, Zeller has now scored more than 20 points in three straight games for the first time in his career. The junior forward also grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out a career-high four assists and tied his career-high in steals (3).
"He played great," Marshall said. "He finished around the rim. A couple of times we got the ball into the high post and he made great decisions. They tried to get very physical with him but he did a good job of keeping his head and playing through that."
Henson delivered his ninth-straight double-double and 18th of the season. When asked what's lead to his increased offensive production over the past nine games (14.3 ppg), the sophomore needed just one word – "Kendall."
"He just hits me in spots [where] all you have to do is put it in the basket," Henson said. "That's what I love about the guy. He finds you. I think that's a big part of it. And then it's playing harder and playing a little more minutes."
The Ingredients of a 19-0 Run
If you're planning to cook up a 19-0 run any time soon, here's the Tar Heels' recipe from Friday night – combine a 56.3 shooting percentage (9/16) with an 11-7 rebounding edge, and then mix in 13 straight missed field goals and five turnovers by your opponent.
It should only take six minutes and 41 seconds to prepare.
Ridiculous Stat of the Day
Marquette committed 14 turnovers before Cadougan found Butler for a bucket with 16:03 to play in regulation to scratch the first assist in the box score.