North Carolina steamrolls past Marquette

NEWARK, N.J. -- One minute into a second half that he thought couldn’t possibly go any worse than the first, Buzz Williams called a timeout.

His Marquette team -- walked over, stomped on, chewed up and spit out in the first half -- had already given up two easy buckets to North Carolina, so the coach rallied the troops 60 ticks in.

And after the break, Dexter Strickland easily swiped the lazy inbounds pass and went coast to coast for the easy layup.

If college basketball had a mercy rule, it would have been called for here.

Instead, the Tar Heels, rebuilt and remodeled two months ago, showed absolutely no mercy, waltzing into the regional final with an 81-63 win that was more suited for a first-round game.

“This is just another phase of our development,’’ said UNC’s John Henson, who added an exclamation point to the win with a monstrous dunk following a Jae Crowder jumper that landed somewhere in Manhattan. “This is the kind of team we always knew we could be.’’

The UNC win means the Big East’s last hope rides on the Sherpa shoulders of Kemba Walker. Connecticut, the team everyone figured would have no legs left after five games in as many nights in New York, instead is the only one with any staying power.

The other 10 now are home.

Marquette might have bigger worries than shirking its duties as conference-pride carrier pigeon. Williams’ name has been attached to other jobs, most prominently at Oklahoma. And with the season officially in the books, the coach’s future is officially on the clock.

If this was his last game on the sideline for MU, at least the coach went down swinging. His team regained a modicum of respect in the second half, playing hard and, if not ever making this a game, at least making it respectable -- cutting a 33-point lead to 14 at one point.

But ultimately, the Golden Eagles’ first half of ineptitude, a 25-point deficit in which they put up only 15 points (their fewest in the first half in 11 years), was just too wide a chasm to overcome.

“I thought in the first half we were pitiful,’’ said Williams, summing up the Golden Eagles in nine simple words. “I thought that once I used our fourth timeout after their two layups to start the second half, I thought from that point forward, we were OK. And I thought we were much better. But to beat a team like that, you have to be that way from start to finish.’’

The caveat here is that North Carolina had a little something to do with Marquette’s woes.

The Tar Heels aren’t in the Elite Eight by accident, nor did they win this game simply because Marquette lost it.

Since a disastrous and humbling 20-point loss to Georgia Tech in January, the Tar Heels are a different team. Loaded with individual talent, they are finally playing like a team, something that was missing last season when they limped into the NIT and this season during a helter-skelter 9-4 start.

“I always knew we had a great team, even when we were 4-3, we had a team meeting and we told each other that,’’ said Tyler Zeller, who led Carolina with 27 points and 12 boards. “But I will admit, at that point in time, when you get beat by 20 by anybody, you start to question how good you are.’’

It was all evident against Marquette. As poorly as the Golden Eagles played, North Carolina played that well. The Heels’ defense had plenty to do with Marquette’s problems. They slapped at the ball and crowded the lane, forcing 18 turnovers. And their size -- the long and lanky Henson and Zeller -- altered more than a few Eagles’ shots.

“I thought our whole defense was good,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We were so active, especially in the first half, probably more than we have been in any recent games.’’

Offensively, the Heels were far from perfect -- they swished just five of 16 3-pointers -- but played well to their strength, moving fluidly to make an athletic Marquette team look both sluggish and flat-footed.

Three players finished in double figures, a logical byproduct of such a lopsided win, but also a sign of just how many ways the Heels can hurt you.

If there is a criticism here, it is that the Heels stepped off the gas pedal in the second half. They got stagnant offensively and flat-out lazy defensively on some possessions.

Marquette never got in the ballpark of threatening -- unless you count cutting it to 14 as a threat -- but certainly UNC isn’t going to be able to let up in its next game, regardless of opponent.

There will be no mercy in that game.

And most definitely, no mercy rule.