It took all of just over a minute for Kendall Marshall to announce to the capacity Smith Center crowd that everything would be alright. Marshall’s three opened the scoring and other than a brief 4-3 lead, the Seminoles could only flounder in the freshman’s wake. In dishing out 16 assists, Marshall set the Carolina freshman record for assists in a game and that total is the most of any Tar Heel in an ACC game. And, the third most by any ACC freshman. Ever.
While this game will certainly be one of many career highlights for Marshall, he and the rest of the Tar Heels kept right on rolling through the first half of the league schedule, running Carolina’s record to 17-5 overall, 7-1 and a tie for first in the league. FSU dropped to 16-7 and 6-3 in the league.
“I think our guys were emotionally, mentally and physically ready to play and really play well,” head coach Roy Williams said after the win. “And we had to be against what I think is a really good Florida State team. ... I did expect them to respond like that.”
Carolina led by nine at the break after Derwin Kitchen’s last second jumper trimmed the lead to 43-34. ‘Nole star Chris Singleton was virtually invisible in the first stanza, with two points and a rebound to go with two personal fouls.
The second half was more of the same as Carolina methodically pushed its lead to 16 with 14 minutes left. A Deividas Dulkys three began a 9-0 Seminole run, and for a moment, the Heels looked like the pressure and the past would catch up with them. Any worries evaporated with the biggest shot of the night for the Heels coming from Marshall on a desperation end of shot clock heave that found the bottom of the net - and ended any chance FSU had of making the comeback.
“I think the one at the end of the shot clock may have been a little lucky, but I think (my shooting) is a little underrated.” the freshman said of the big shot.
From there, the Heels cruised to the win they’ll savor for 24 hours before turning their attention to Duke in Durham.
“I told the guys in the locker room that we had another one coming, but let’s enjoy this one,” Williams said. “It’s been a tough 48 hours. I told them to enjoy this and enjoy being a college student and whatever is coming up we will talk about in practice tomorrow.”
The first thing you get from seeing the Florida State players in person is their length. It’s often an overstated topic in basketball, but with the Seminoles, there’s no denying that length is the main reason they are viewed as a shutdown defensive team. With no regular under 6-4, the Noles get after the basketball unlike any team the Heels have faced thus far. Coming into the game, FSU’s opponents managed just 35.5 percent from the field and gave up 17.5 turnovers.
So what did the Heels do to combat that? Attack. Repeatedly. And give no quarter.
“I think if you retreat against them, they smell blood and go after you harder,” Williams commented when asked about the game plan. “On the board we said 'Attack, attack, attack' and they are supposed to come back to me with ‘Under control.'”
In light of Marshall’s aforementioned performance, Dexter Strickland’s showing will surely go under the public radar, but can’t be overlooked. With the Heels spreading the floor, Strickland’s ability to get into the lane complemented Marshall and gave the ‘Noles no way to defend either the layup or the pass to the Carolina bigs. Toss in John Henson knocking in three 17-foot jumpshots and the Heels' plan worked to perfection.
“When you have Henson knocking down jumpers and Zeller playing solid fundamentally ... it makes it difficult,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton later said. “Today we had very little answer for their execution.”
That execution led to 55.7 percent shooting for the Heels against the nation’s top-ranked field goal percentage defense.
When a ten-man rotation drops to nine, it’s obvious to expect more minutes for those left. This game is no exception - but with a few startling numbers.
Marshall led the Heels with 36 minutes on the night and Strickland totaled 35. Until today, no Carolina player had logged more than 33 minutes in a game this season. Conversely, Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald managed only seven a piece. An anomaly or the norm from here forward?
“Hopefully I can get it down a little bit,” Williams said about Marshall’s 36. “In ’05 Raymond Felton averaged 34 minutes a game, but Raymond was a different animal than Kendall is right now. I think we’d probably try to get that down a little bit.”
Though Strickland didn’t seem winded with the additional minutes, the shock of going from 15-20 minutes to 36 showed if not in Marshall’ play, certainly on his face.
“Going from 15-20 to 30 plus tonight, that’s tough,” Zeller said of Marshall’s game. “I think the role he has is a lot bigger and he won’t be able to come out a whole lot and he did a great job dealing with it.”
“My body definitely felt the 36 minutes tonight,” Marshall said. “I am going to have to do a better job with my body and adjusting to the situation.”
It will be interesting to watch both in Durham and over the next couple of weeks to see how Williams manages the minutes for his guards. But so long as Strickland and Marshall put together games like tonight, reducing court time for those two will be difficult.
If there has been a 48-hour tempest in Carolina Basketball like this group of Heels have been through, it has been a while. Doubters and naysayers have risen up, only to be shouted down and drowned out. And the great thing about sports, you get another chance to play the game. And either you come together or you fall apart.
Though it is just one game, there is little question which path the Heels have taken.
In the same vein, the Carolina fanbase has united. Gone are the divisive arguments with no winners. For those that happened to be one of the 20,945 fans that filled the Smith Center on Sunday, they understand. Over the years, the Dome has received it’s share of knocks: too vanilla, too library-like. But if there’s an off the court benefit of the past week's events, it brought the Smith Center to life.
With a nod and exception of the usual environment with the Blue Devils in town, today’s crowd was the best this author has seen in a quarter century. More than ever, this team needed it, and more than ever, the building delivered.