ST. LOUIS -- North Carolina sophomore Reggie Bullock was playing defense near Ohio’s bench with somewhere around 12 minutes left in regulation when he overheard a Bobcats assistant coach say it: “They can’t win without Kendall Marshall.”
And boy, that made him mad.
“That just got to me, for someone to say that my team can’t fight, can’t win without our starting point guard,’’ said Bullock, usually one of the most mild-mannered members of the team. “That lit a fire under me.”
And he took it out on the Bobcats, right when the Tar Heels needed it the most.
With Marshall (UNC’s Cousy Award finalist) on the bench in a suit because of a fractured wrist, and top scorer Harrison Barnes struggling to make just about anything, it was Bullock’s blaze -- from beyond the 3-point line and on the boards -- that helped push top-seeded UNC to a 73-65 overtime victory.
Bullock scored 12 of his 17 points after his accidental eavesdrop. As a result, the guard who missed the entire NCAA tournament last season because of knee surgery will be playing Sunday in the Midwest Regional final. The Tar Heels will play Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome.
“I think Reggie really grew up as a player tonight,’’ said Marshall, who declined to discuss the state of his fractured right wrist after the game. “People take it for granted, but he didn’t play in the NCAA tournament last year. This is his first time going through this. And … to have the [guts] to take those big shots and knock them down, that’s big-time. One of his downfalls is how unselfish he is. But he was huge for us tonight.”
Indeed, with little-used freshman point guard Stilman White (two points, six assists, no turnovers) making his first start and senior wing-turned-backup-ballhandler Justin Watts (four rebounds, three turnovers, one assist) backing him up, UNC built, then lost, a 15-point lead. Even against a smaller Ohio team -- its tallest starter was 6-foot-8, compared to UNC’s starting frontcourt of 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Barnes -- the Tar Heels seemed out of sync without Marshall, who set the ACC record for assists in a season before breaking his wrist last Sunday.
And they were sloppy, turning the ball over a season-high 24 times.
UNC also got a scare with 16:29 left, when Bullock limped out of a game after his surgically repaired left knee buckled while he was trying to grab a rebound.
“All I could think was, ‘Not another one. Not another bad knee,’’’ said Barnes, who had already seen two other UNC guards, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland, sidelined by knee injuries this season.
But Bullock checked back in with 15:21 left, overheard the Ohio assistant’s comment, and told his team about it during the 12-minute TV timeout.
Then he got busy taking out his angst on the court.
With 11:26 left, he buried a much-needed 3 to give his team a 42-38 cushion.
With 7:36 left, he did it again, this time giving his team a 51-47 advantage.
And with 40 seconds left -- and with the 13th-seeded Bobcats leading by one -- he hit another big 3-pointer that gave his team a 63-61 lead.
“Right when I caught the ball, I heard my whole bench, from managers to everybody, say ‘Shoot!’” Bullock said. “And right then, I just pulled the trigger and I saw it go in. And I just was like, I was just thinking to myself, ‘It's like my time to perform.’ And it was a big shot for our team and all my teammates just believing in me to make those shots.”
A jumper by Ohio’s Walter Offutt (26 points), and then a miss by Barnes, sent the game to the five-minute extra period. But it was Bullock -- who else? -- who opened overtime with -- what else? -- a 3-pointer.
"He was,'' Zeller said, "incredible."
The 6-7 athlete from Kinston, N.C., wasn’t the only standout in the survival. Zeller, who finished with 20 points and a career-high 22 rebounds, became only the fourth player in the last 30 seasons to record a 20-20 in an NCAA tournament, and the first since Tim Duncan in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Henson added 14 points and 10 rebounds.
But Bullock (6-for-13 overall, 5-for-10 on 3-pointers) was especially key on a night when Barnes made only 3 of 16 shots and Ohio got hot in the second half, making 50 percent of its shots after going 8-for-35 in the first half.
“I think we feel like we got away with one,’’ Zeller said. “Ohio played the better game, they hit a lot of shots; I think we just were able to make a lot of plays at the end that made us capable of pulling it out.”
Including a few from Bullock, who also grabbed 10 rebounds to record his second career double-double.
“I want Kendall out there, but he wasn’t able to be out there -- he was helping us fight from the bench,’’ Bullock said. “And I wanted to show that our team could still compete.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.