CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After scoring on back-to-back drives late in Tuesday’s first half, North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall couldn’t help but grin.
“I don’t think that’s happened since high school,” the pass-first sophomore said of his offensive onslaught. “So it felt good.”
Marshall did a lot of better-than-good things during No. 3 UNC’s 73-56 victory over Miami at the Smith Center. He kept Hurricanes guard Durand Scott from consistently penetrating past him, helping to the hold the junior to 4-for-12 shooting. He dished out, as usual, an easy-looking-for-him eight assists while playing a team-high 32 minutes.
But the newer facet of Marshall's game that could also bode well for the Tar Heels is his offense. The sophomore scored 12 points in his first double-figure scoring output of the season, and tied his career high with five field goals.
The nation’s leader in assists said he wasn’t necessarily being more assertive offensively, but taking what the defense had to give him.
“I guess you could say this was the first team that really focused on playing me for the pass,’’ Marshall said. “So when I got into the lane, it was almost daring me to shoot it.”
And who can resist a dare?
“Kendall Marshall was very, very sharp,’’ said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, whose backcourt combination of Scott and Malcolm Grant was rather dull, shooting a combined 6-for-20 and missing all seven of their 3-point attempts.
“He was able to find the open man regularly, but he was aggressive going to the basket, himself. He got several layups, where you are hoping your guards can stay between him and the basket. We were not able to do that often enough.”
Indeed, Marshall’s back-to-back buckets began a 9-0 first-half-ending run that gave the Tar Heels a 40-25 lead at the break. UNC stretched that breakaway to 17-0 (including another Marshall field goal) to open the second half before Hurricanes forward Kenny Kadji (16 points) scored with 16:48 left.
Marshall’s field goals, as well as shooting guard Dexter Strickland’s offense (14 points, matching his season high) were particularly important in a game during which UNC’s “Big Three” weren’t connecting early or often. While leading scorer Harrison Barnes (2-for-12) was held to a season-low six points; forward John Henson made only 5 of his 13 shots en route to a double-double (11 points, 14 rebounds); and Tyler Zeller (6-for-11, 16 points, 10 rebounds) made most of his buckets in the second half.
Marshall and Strickland, meanwhile, combined to make 12 of their 16 shots.
“Last game I talked about how our big guys had great shooting percentages, and this time is was Dexter and Kendall,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I like that of it, that different people can hurt you on a different night.”
Because it keeps defenses honest, Marshall said -- meaning they can’t just play him as if he’s always going to pass.
Now, he has shown that he can score.
“And I think it makes us very tough to guard,’’ Zeller said. “I think Kendall did a fantastic job of -- they stayed on the shooter, so he went and took a layup. When they came in [on him], he passed the ball out. He’s a fantastic decision-maker, and probably the best point guard I’ve ever played with.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.