updated 11:09 p.m.
NEWARK, N.J. -- This time a year ago, North Carolina didn’t quite know whether to celebrate or hibernate as it packed its bags for the NIT semi-finals.
Now, just one win away from the NCAA Final Four, there is no question.
“I’m just so happy, so glad,’’ Tar Heels sophomore Leslie McDonald said, grinning earlobe to earlobe after UNC’s dominating 81-63 victory over 11th-seeded Marquette. “It’s a  turnaround… a year ago, I don’t know whether anyone would have expected us to be in the Elite Eight.”
Especially in such dominating fashion.
Second-seeded UNC – which will play either Kentucky or Ohio State on Sunday – put its whole arsenal together in advancing to its fifth regional final in seven seasons.
It used its ever-improving defense to shut down the Golden Eagles in the first half, holding them scoreless for nearly nine minutes and to 15 points by the break -- marking the second-fewest points in a half for a Carolina NCAA foe (Pittsburgh score only 8 in the first half in 1941, in the East semi-final).
It used its oversized front line of Tyler Zeller (27 points, 12 rebounds), John Henson (14 points, 12 rebounds) and Harrison Barnes (20 points, 9 rebounds) to dominate both the lane and the boards – building as much as a 32 point lead early in the second half.
And when Marquette cut its deficit to as little as 14 points late, UNC used its toughness, and hard-learned poise, to close out the victory.
“I knew they were really good,’’ said Marquette coach Buzz Williams. “And I thought they played even better than good.”
The game turned into a shellacking early.
UNC trailed once -- 10-8 – before it jetted to a 19-0 run that lasted nearly nine minutes and saw Marquette miss 14 straight shots.
By the time Golden Eagles guard Jimmy Butler buried a jumper with 3:54 left, it only cut Carolina’s lead to 15. Then, Barnes countered with a 3-pointer that made it 30-12.
By halftime, UNC led 40-15, while Marquette had 12 turnovers and zero assists.
And you had the feeling there would be no miracle for the Golden Eagles when Buzz Williams had to call yet another timeout just a minute into the second half.
And that was solidified when UNC shooting guard Dexter Strickland immediately stole the Golden Eagles’ inbounds pass – dunking it on the other end to give UNC a 46-15 lead.
“It was frustrating … we fought and fought and fought in the second half, and tried to cut it down as much as possible,” said Raleigh’s Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette’s leading scorer who was frazzled by Strickland into a 2-for-9 performance. “But we dug ourselves a hole.”
Indeed, Marquette used a zone – aka, UNC’s kryptonite – to push the Tar Heels into missing shots, and away from feeding their big men. The Golden Eagles cut to within 71-57 with 3:57 left, but a 3-pointer from McDonald pushed any air out of any budding hopes.
In the end, UNC committed a season-low seven turnovers while shooting 41.9 percent.
And there was no question, unlike a year ago, about whether to celebrate their accomplishment.
“All year we’ve talked a lot about not going back to where we were last year,’’ Zeller said. “That’s been our focus all season. … Now, we have to take that next step.”
Photo: UNC's John Henson (31) blocks a shot by Marquette's Jae Crowder (32) in the second half. Henson had five blocked shots and scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the Tar Heels' 81-63 victory.