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Tar Heels steamroll Marquette; Golden Eagles finally run out of gas after exciting trip to Sweet 16

No one can question Marquette's collection of talent, and over the course of this long-winded season the Golden Eagles proved they were more than a ragtag bunch of junior college transfers.

But they ran into a powder-blue buzzsaw in North Carolina, who after starting slowly overwhelmed the Golden Eagles on Friday, 81-63, in an East Regional semifinal at the Prudential Center.

The Golden Eagles made a foolhardy choice to take it to the North Carolina big men, something they did successfully last weekend against Syracuse. Last week the Golden Eagles had to take it to Rick Jackson, but North Carolina is awash with Rick Jacksons.

Too much Tyler Zeller. Too much John Henson. Too much Harrison Barnes. Combined the trio contributed 61 of North Carolina's 81 points and 31 of its 48 rebounds. There wasn't much Marquette could do.

"It has been a huge turnaround," said forward Tyler Zeller, who led the Tar Heels with 27 points. "Now that we're in the Elite Eight it's a great feeling. I'm proud of every one of my teammates."

North Carolina will face Kentucky, a 62-60 winner over top-seeded Ohio State, Sunday with a Final Four berth at stake.

The score was 40-15 at the halftime which brings the notion that, yes, the Big East is overrated. How else can you explain such a large chasm between two schools from power conferences at this time of year?

"You get kind of tired of the fights in the Big East night in and night out," Marquette's Vander Blue said. "There's a lot of teams in the country that don't get the recognition that we get in the Big East and you can't take anything away from North Carolina."

One minute into the second half, Carolina got two quick buckets and Buzz Williams called time out. Then, a Tar Heels steal led to a Dexter Strickland dunk and a 46-15 lead. With 16:45 left in the game, the Golden Eagles finally scored 20 points, a mini-milestone to say the least in this one-sided affair.

"It was very frustrating," Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom said. "They did a great job of taking away our wings and what we do in transition.

"Their inside presence of Zeller and Henson -- those two guys play great together."

The No. 11-seeded Golden Eagles are the surprise of the regional but the Tar Heels were as good as advertised and won the game handily. Still, overall, it was a good run for Marquette.

That Marquette is now considered a haven for junior college transfers has been received with mixed feelings in Milwaukee. The winning is nice, yes, but programs like Marquette generally don't load up on players from junior colleges.

There's a stigma attached to junior college transfers which is part of college basketball's anesthetizing obsession to attach labels to everything involved in the sport.

Junior college players are usually hit or miss, there's no in between. There's an ugly narrow-mindedness at work in college basketball that says it is somehow grubby to take jucos because it muddies the time-honored tactic of slowly building a championship team with high school prospects. Whatever the arguments, the system works for Williams and Marquette.

Jimmy Butler had the grades coming out of Tomball High School in Texas but was forced to attend Tyler Junior College because no one else wanted him. Joseph Fulce didn't gain enough credits out of high school and also attended Tyler.

Johnson-Odom had the strangest basketball odyssey of all. He's at Marquette after attending prep school and junior college before receiving clearance from the NCAA.

"No other school knew about me my freshman year, so the only school looking at me was Marquette," he said.

In just his fourth season as a collegiate head coach, Williams was quietly hoping a trip to the Final Four would help change some impressions. Publicly, he has nothing to prove after Marquette sent Xavier and Syracuse into the offseason.

But North Carolina ended Marquette's season, and Williams loses Fulce, Butler and Dwight Buycks. If he wants to beat teams like the Tar Heels he has to find more players.

Luckily, he knows exactly where to look.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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