UNC's Kendall Marshall (5) and John Henson leave the court following their 76-69 loss to Kentucky. ROBERT WILLETT - firstname.lastname@example.org
updated 9:20 p.m.
NEWARK, N.J. -- All season long, North Carolina coach Roy Williams warned that eventually, star freshman Harrison Barnes would miss a clutch shot.
Sunday, in the most frenetic and pressure-packed of circumstances at the Prudential Center, he missed two.
With the ultimate comeback on the line – a trip to the NCAA Final Four, after a failure to even make the field last March – Barnes-led UNC came back from an 11-point deficit against Kentucky only to lose 76-69 when Wildcats guard DeAndre Liggins made a big 3-pointer, while Barnes and point guard Kendall Marshall failed to make four shots in the final 62 seconds.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats (29-8) advanced to play third-seeded Connecticut in the national semifinals Saturday in Houston. The second-seeded Tar Heels (29-8), who won a school record eight games by three or fewer points, are left wondering what might have been if they could have done it again.
“This is not a moral victory,’’ said a teary-eyed Barnes, who finished with 18 points on 7-for-19 shooting. “ From not getting to the NCAA tournament [last season] to work to get this far – it’s sad that we end our season on unfilled potential.”
The Tar Heels trailed by as much as 47-36 with 16:03 left, after starting forward John Henson (four points, nine rebounds) picked up his fourth foul – giving Kentucky a 3-point play. It marked the first time this season that Henson, left to fidget on the bench for most of the first half, had ever picked up more than three fouls. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year’s presence was missed, as he finished with zero blocks and only one offensive rebound.
“I made some silly plays at the beginning of the game, and I never could get ahead of the foul count,’’ Henson said. “It was just a bad, bad game for me, overall.”
Even so, he was back on the floor when UNC made a familiar-looking rally.
The Wildcats were leading 65-57 when Barnes countered by out-scoring UK 8-2 all on his own – with a 3-pointer, a 3-point play and a shot in the lane. That cut UNC’s deficit to 67-65 with 4:19 left.
About a minute later, Tar Heels forward Tyler Zeller (21 points, 9 rebounds) knotted the score 67-67 with two free throws.
“Z made some big plays, Harrison made some big plays – and all we needed was one shot to fall,’’ Henson said.
But after Zeller followed Kentucky guard Brandon Knights’ 3-pointer with a tip-in, Liggins blocked Marshall’s driving layup – then hit a corner 3-pointer (photo right) at the other end of the floor to give UK a 73-69 cushion with 37 seconds left.
“There was a wide-open driving lane, and Liggins made a great play,’’ said Marshall, who had 7 points and 8 assists. “That 3 he hit was a back-breaker.”
But not for Barnes, not then. The freshman – who had made two game-winning shots, and four other go-ahead buckets in the final five minutes of games this season – had one thought: “provide that spark.”
But he missed two contested 3-pointers, bookending two free throws from Knight.
“On the first shot, there was some contact,’’ Barnes said. “I asked the ref about it, he said he didn’t see it; that’s human error. It happens. The second one, I tried to draw a little bit of contact; he might have clipped me a little bit, but I should have made the shot.”
Marshall missed the final bucket of the game, a 3-pointer with three seconds left that wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
The Wildcats, led by 22 points from Knight, shot 48.2 and made 12 of 22 3-pointers.
UNC -- the team that had rallied together off the court as much as on it, after losing multiple players to transfers and injury -- made 50 percent of its shots in the second half. Just not when it needed them the most.
“I just tried to provide that boost,’’ said Barnes, whose fans will likely now start to ponder whether he’ll decide to make another comeback – to Chapel Hill, for his sophomore season – in the coming weeks. “And unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to put our team over the edge at the end of the season.”