ST. LOUIS — Harrison Barnes sat slumped near his locker, blue towel draped over his head, arms crossed, his gray Air Jordans pointing toward the middle of the room.
Three minutes passed. Five minutes. 10 minutes.
Across the locker room, sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall sat in a chair, his right wrist covered by a black brace, his purple tie still knotted. Just a feet away, junior forward John Henson was buried in a mass of reporters.
But Barnes, a sophomore forward, stayed still, deflated and defeated.
“There wasn’t much to be said,” Barnes would eventually say.
It was 6:45 Sunday night, still not long after No. 2 seed Kansas delivered a second-half knockout to No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Midwest Regional final. For the second year in a row, the Tar Heels had advanced to the Elite Eight only to leave in a daze. For the second time in five years, North Carolina coach Roy Williams had met his former program in the NCAA Tournament, only to watch his successor, Bill Self, get the best of him, 80-67.
“It was a game of runs,” Williams said. “And we didn’t answer the last one.”
For North Carolina, the seeds of defeat took root in the final leg of the second half. With Kansas holding a 68-64 lead near the under 8-minute media timeout, Kansas slipped into a triangle-and-two defense, putting two in man-to-man and shifting three others into a zone. KU had employed a similar look in the final stages of its earlier-round victory over Purdue. And Self said the coaches on the Kansas bench seemed to think it would work again — if the Jayhawks could rebound.
At first, the North Carolina players seemed unsure of how to attack it. Marshall, sitting on the bench with his broken wrist, watched the offense start to sputter.
“I think it caught us off guard,” he said. “… It took us a couple plays to realize we could still run our regular offense, and it could still be effective. By that time, we had kind of dug ourselves into a hole that we couldn’t get ourselves out of.”
With 5:46 left, North Carolina senior center Kyle Zeller hit a jumper, cutting KU’s lead to 68-66. The Tar Heels didn’t make another field goal. Nine missed shots. Turnovers. Two blocks in the lane by Kansas center Jeff Withey that turned into KU points in transition.
“Everywhere you went, there was help defense right there and ready,” Barnes said. “I remember the one time: I caught it on the left wing, pump fake, Travis Releford goes in the air. I take one dribble and Elijah Johnson or Tyshawn Taylor is right there.”
Inside the North Carolina locker room, there seemed to be some confusion on what defenses the Jayhawks were playing in the final minutes — or if they were even in the triangle-and-two at all.
Barnes indicated that the North Carolina players didn’t know that the triangle-and-two scheme was part of Kansas’ defense repertoire.
“They haven’t done it in the past,” said Barnes, who finished with 13 points while missing all five of his three-point attempts. “But they tried it out against us.”
As Barnes talked, the rest of the room was mostly silent. Zeller peeled off his shoes. Others stayed still. It was all so stunning. For one half, the Tar Heels had played North Carolina basketball. Relentlessly fast. Attacking. Six players scoring at least five points in the opening 20 minutes. In a nearly 7-minute stretch during the first half, North Carolina made 10 straight shots from the field. The Tar Heels finished the first half shooting 63.6 percent from the field. And the game was tied 47-47, an offensive masterpiece from both teams.
“You really thought it would continue that way,” Williams said. “And we would make a run.”
Instead, Kansas limited North Carolina to 22.6-percent shooting in the second half, the lowest opponent field-goal percentage ever in a half against KU in the NCAA Tournament. The performance came just a week after Kansas held Purdue to 29.4-percent shooting in the second half.
“I don’t know what they were playing,” said Henson, who had just four of his 10 points after halftime.. “But they sagged the big man into the lane. And I think that really disoriented our offense.”
It was close to 7 p.m. on Sunday, and the towel was gone. Now Barnes was leaning back, explaining how it all slipped away so quickly. The Tar Heels couldn’t find a way to get the ball to Zeller, he said. And he couldn’t find a way to catch the ball anywhere close to the basket. And when it came down to it, and the Tar Heels had chances to make Kansas pay, they just couldn’t make shots.
“You either survive, or you don’t survive,” Barnes said. “And we didn’t make it out today.”