ST. LOUIS -- Hoggard (Wilmington, N.C.) High coach Brett Queen won't be at the Edward Jones Dome this weekend to watch top-seeded North Carolina play in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals.
“I’m saving my money for the Final Four in New Orleans,’’ he said.
That’s how much confidence he has that his former point guard, Stilman White -- who may have to play extended minutes, at the very least, with starter Kendall Marshall's status in question -- will help UNC to get there.
“I spent a lot of time handing the ball to him, and watching him do what needed to be done to help us win,’’ Queen said. “And I’m sure he’ll do the same thing for North Carolina.”
With Marshall’s status unclear for Friday’s game against No. 13 seed Ohio because of a fractured right wrist, the Tar Heels have been preparing White and senior wing Justin Watts to run the point.
What a whirlwind.
This time last year, White never expected to be in this position. Heck, he didn’t really think he’d be playing competitive basketball.
The 6-foot, 160-pounder originally planned to serve a two-year Mormon mission right after high school before eventually playing basketball at Utah State, BYU or UNC-Wilmington.
That was before the Tar Heels, who were in need of another point guard after Larry Drew II transferred near midseason last year, came calling.
“And I fell in love with this place,’’ White said of Chapel Hill.
He was supposed to be an insurance policy, a guy to play behind Marshall and Dexter Strickland. Maybe even hit a shot or two while competing with the walk-ons at the end of blowouts.
Instead, UNC’s coaches had to cash in that policy in mid-January, when Strickland suffered a season-ending knee surgery. All of a sudden, White was in the game at more crucial times, spelling Marshall around timeouts. He didn’t necessarily play a lot more minutes -- only 4.3 per game for the season -- but he played more key minutes, enough to give Marshall more of a breather.
And teammates saw growth.
"When he first got out there, we were a little scared that he might have an anxiety attack or pass out," teammate Harrison Barnes said, laughing. "He looks more fluid out there and he can kind of push the ball and get up and down."
But fluid enough?
Against Ohio, White will face a small, quick perimeter, led by 5-foot-10 playmaker D.J. Cooper, that forces about 17 turnovers a game.
But White and the Tar Heels have several advantages that Ohio does not: 7-foot ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller, 6-11 Defensive Player of the Year John Henson, and 6-8 small forward Barnes, a first-team All-ACC selection.
“We’re saying ‘Guys, everybody’s got to elevate your level of play.' Everybody’s got to do a little bit better. You’ve got to do a little bit better on the defensive end; you’ve got to do a little bit better here, a little bit better there,” coach Roy Williams told ESPN’s Mike & Mike in the Morning on Wednesday. “ … But Harrison, John and Tyler, that frontcourt is really good, and we’ve got to be able to get the ball to them. That’s the big thing.”
White, Queen said, can be counted on because he's always risen to the occasion when the pressure is on.
During his first game playing varsity at Hoggard his sophomore season, White stole the ball and laid it in at the buzzer on the road to beat a taller, favored Raleigh-Wakefield team. Starting his junior and senior seasons, he found a way to lead, even when opposing teams were trying to find ways to get the ball out of his hands. He even jumped center a few times when his team needed it.
“He’s never played in the Sweet 16 before, and a lot of fans might look at that as incredible pressure,’’ Queen said. “But when you’re a sophomore playing on varsity, that’s pressure. When you’re a junior and senior and opponents are trying to stop you, but you still need to score and find ways to win, that’s pressure.”
“He’s always thrived in pressure situations,’’ Queen added. “And I expect him to do it again.”
White said earlier this week he has experienced a jumble of emotions since Sunday, when Marshall got hurt: surprise, nervousness, determination.
But he's also excited, because he sees this tournament as an opportunity -- his last as a college player until he returns to UNC from his mission in 2014.
And wouldn’t it be nice to leave with a national championship ring on his finger?
“The NCAA tournament’s new to me, but also knowing that this is the last competitive basketball for a while … I definitely want to live it up now,’’ he said.
“… I’m ready to do whatever the coaching staff asks me to do. Being able to play through the whole ACC season, playing against that level of competition and through hostile environments like that, was huge. My confidence has only risen since then, and it’s shown me that I can play out there with the best of them."
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.