UNC's Kendall Marshall (5) huddles with teammates Tyler Zeller (44), John Henson and Harrison Barnes (40) in the first half against Florida State. ROBERT WILLETT - email@example.com
updated: 5:50 p.m.
CHAPEL HILL – This was Kendall Marshall’s game.
And now, no doubt, this is Kendall Marshall’s team.
Two days after North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II inexplicably opted to transfer at mid-ACC-season, the 23rd-ranked Tar Heels did not miss a beat. Led by 16 assists from Marshall – a new freshman record, and the most ever by a Tar Heel in an ACC game -- UNC shredded through Florida State’s top-ranked defense on Sunday and blew out the Seminoles 89-69 at the Smith Center.
The Tar Heels (17-5, 7-1 ACC) have now won five in a row, and are a half-game out of first place in the ACC standings, setting up a showdown at fifth-ranked Duke on Wednesday. It marked the most points allowed by FSU (16-7, 6-3) since the Tar Heels beat the Seminoles in 2008.
“ I won’t say it was a statement [for me], because we had a lot of great players play great tonight,’’ said Marshall, who also had 9 points, 3 steals and 3 turnovers in a career-high 36 minutes. “John [Henson] and Harrison [Barnes] both had double-doubles … we had a lot of great contributions off the bench. But as the point guard on this team, I do feel like I’m sort of the leader. And I have to be able to lead by example.”
He did that. Teammates said that Marshall – who took over the starting position from Drew on January 18 – was calm and cool during the last two days of practice, which included a team meeting Friday to discuss Drew’s departure, then another 5-minute get-together on Saturday morning to make sure no one had anything else to say on the matter.
The best piece of advice he got, Marshall said, came from coach Roy Williams: “He said, ‘Tough times don’t last, but tough players do.’”
Then the 6-feet-3 Virginia native showed it on the court. After receiving rousing applause of support when he was introduced, Marshall made UNC’s first basket (a 3-pointer). Then, with UNC leading 10-8, he contributed two assists during an 8-2 run that gave the Tar Heels their first double-digit lead (20-10, with 11:09 left in the first half.)
“This was Kendall being Kendall,’’ said Barnes, who scored a team-high 17 points, plus 10 rebounds. “Just give him the ball and get out of his way. He’ll create a shot for you, or he’ll create a shot for himself.”
By halftime, when UNC led 43-34, he had five assists, and had to take a detour to the bathroom to throw up. It’s something, Marshall said, that happened in about half of his high school games last season, but this was a first at UNC. It must have helped, because he was even better in the second half.
With Marshall finding Henson (16 points, 10 rebounds), Tyler Zeller (16 points and Barnes seemingly at will, the closest the Seminoles got in the second half was 57-50, after scoring six straight points. But Marshall – who else? – halted the run with a 3-pointer, and UNC led by double figures the rest of the way.
“We had a difficult time keeping him in front of us,” said FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team topped the nation in field goal percentage defense (35.5 percent), but allowed the Tar Heels to shoot 55.7 percent.
“He seemed to be extremely clever with the ball; he has his head up, which is almost a throwback to those guys who seem to always know where [their] teammates are. Even when we thought we had him under control he had an awareness of who the dropoff guy the kickout guy was, and he found them with ease.”
Senior Chris Singleton, who sat out the last 11 minutes of the first half, after picking up his second foul, led the Seminoles with 15 points.
Shooting guard Dexter Strickland – who also backed up Marshall at point guard – was the fifth player in double figures for the Tar Heels; he scored 15 points in 35 minutes.
But still, the most kudos belonged to Marshall, who said he was proud to set a record at a school that has a history of great point guards. He credited his teammates for making the shots that gave him the assists -- and he credited his team for overcoming the sudden loss of Drew, a former starter.
“We just wanted to come out here with a swagger, with an edge to us, and basically show that we’re still North Carolina,’’ Marshall said. “One player doesn’t make our program. And I think it says a lot about our character to come out here and get it done.”