It was one of the most critical plays of the season for North Carolina -- not that many even noticed it.
With five seconds left in the Tar Heels' third-round game against Washington in Charlotte's Time Warner Arena last Sunday, the Huskies Venoy Overton received an inbounds pass. North Carolina held an 86-83 lead, and now North Carolina true freshman point guard Kendall Marshall shadowed Overton as he ran up the right side of the court.
In the huddle during a timeout moments earlier, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams had instructed his players to foul in the backcourt. This was sound strategy: A foul would take away the possibility of Washington attempting a three-point shot. Overton expected this. So when he saw Marshall lunge at him, Overton jumped in the air. But then, in a savvy move, in a move that says so much about the player, Marshall slammed on the brakes, backing off and not touching Overton. This left Overton, who was now hanging in the air, vulnerable, with no choice but to launch a desperation shot from midcourt with his right hand, even though he's left-handed.
It wasn't close. Despite the fact that UNC's John Henson touched the air ball as it sailed out of bounds, keeping possession with Washington, the clock only showed half a second and the Huskies weren't able to even attempt a potential tying three.
How big was the play of Marshall in the win over Washington? Aside from hoodwinking Overton, he scored 13 points, went 6-for-7 from the free-throw line and had 14 assists -- a school record in the NCAA tournament. Yes, in just his second game in the caldron of the tournament, Marshall had more assists in one contest than past Carolina point guard legends such as Phil Ford and Kenny Smith ever did in the NCAAs.
"Kendall has been huge for us," said Tar Heels freshman forward Harrison Barnes. "He's in a nice groove right now. His play has meant everything for us."
Yet there were times in Charlotte when Marshall played very much like a true freshman, making questionable decisions on the floor (he had a team-high four turnovers against Washington) and looking tentative running the point. But remember: Marshall has only been starting since late January, when Williams decided to bench Larry Drew, which ultimately prompted Drew to quit the team. Williams made the switch two days after Carolina lost by 20 points to a middling Georgia Tech team.
"That was a hard situation for everyone involved," Marshall said. "All I can do is go out there, play hard and just try to get better and remember that my job is get guys the ball in a position where they can score."
That decision by Williams fundamentally changed the course of North Carolina's season. Before the switch, the Tar Heels were 12-5. Since the switch, they are 16-2, with both losses coming against Duke. Marshall isn't the defender that Drew was nor is he as quick, but he's spurred the Tar Heels' late-season surge by pushing the ball up the court and using his uncanny vision to distribute. The quickened pace has allowed North Carolina to flourish, mostly because the Heels boast one of the most athletic rosters in the country. Said Henson, "You've always got to be ready to catch a pass when Kendall is in the game. Your eyes need to be on him."
On Friday night against Marquette in Newark, Marshall very could be guarded by 6-foot-7 Jimmy Butler, one of the top defensive guards in the country who held Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine to six points on Sunday. If North Carolina advances on Friday, then Marshall will go head-to-head with either Ohio State freshman Aaron Craft, who over the last nine games has 53 assists and only 14 turnovers, or outstanding Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight.
So Marshall will be tested in Newark. And how he fares in the Garden State could very well determine whether or not the Tar Heels, who didn't qualify for the tournament last year, win the East region.
"I feel like I've come a long ways," Marshall said. "We are a lot better as a team than we were a few weeks ago. Hopefully we can make a deep run in this tournament. We really don't want this to end."