NEWARK, N.J. — Catch ‘em if you can.
After repeated early, deep deficits this postseason, North Carolina flipped the script Friday night, dismantling Marquette 81-63 in an East Regional semifinal that was over before the half.
North Carolina got off to its customary slow start, then seized control to move within a game of reaching the Final Four for the third time in four years.
“I looked up at the clock and it was 10-8 their favor, and the next time I looked at the clock is when I went off at halftime and it was 40-15,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I knew we were doing very well to say the least.”
Those 15 first-half points were the second-fewest allowed by North Carolina in a half in 144 NCAA tournament games, and Marquette’s 20 percent shooting from the field came on 6-of-30 shooting that was the second lowest by an opponent in an NCAA tournament game.
Just a year after missing the NCAA party, the kids from Chapel Hill are ready to steal the show.
Tyler Zeller had 27 points and 15 rebounds, while John Henson added 14 points and 12 rebounds for the second-seeded Tar Heels in the rout at the Prudential Center. Harrison Barnes added 20 points and six rebounds.
North Carolina (29-7) will face Kentucky or top-seed Ohio State on Sunday for a spot in Houston.
“It means a great deal to all of us,” Zeller said. “We’ve been working for this all year and finally put ourselves in a situation and we have to go out and play Sunday.”
The Tar Heels looked scary against Marquette.
Everyone knew they could run up and down the court with the best in college basketball. Friday’s dominating defensive performance was an eye-opener.
“I still think we can play better,’ Carolina guard Dexter Strickland said. “We haven’t played to our potential.”
Marquette’s miserable game meant the Big East’s contingent of 11 teams has dipped to one — Connecticut.
“We just couldn’t do anything right in the first half, and that’s just not the way we play,” said Davante Gardner who led the Golden Eagles with 16 points and six rebounds. “It was uncharacteristic of us, and actually, it was pretty embarrassing.”
Marquette had only two bad games down the stretch, and both came in this building. Three weeks ago, they were blown out by a sub .500 Seton Hall team in a game that seemingly put the Golden Eagles out of the NCAA tournament.
Marquette, however, played well enough in the Big East Conference tournament to make the show then knocked off Xavier and fourth-seeded Syracuse.
Going against North Carolina was a mismatch.
“We had zero assists at halftime, and we never do that,” said Jimmy Butler, who had 14 points in his final game. “I had no idea what was going on. We had to be able to adjust and get some baskets, but we let them get away with doing whatever they wanted to do. The toughest team usually wins, and we definitely were not the tougher team.”
The Tar Heels played a physical game against their tough-minded Big East Conference opponent for the opening eight minutes and then took control.
Trailing 10-8 with 12:43 to go, North Carolina went on a 19-0 run, forcing Marquette to miss 14 straight shots. The game was just about over at that point.
Kendall Marshall started the North Carolina run with a shot in the lane, and Zeller gave the Tar Heels the lead for good, grabbing two offensive rebounds on the same possession and putting the second one in.
Marshall, who had seven assists, hit another jumper in the lane and then made a crosscourt pass to Henson for an alley-oop dunk that had the powder blue-clad North Carolina fans jumping out of their seats.
When Dexter Strickland hit a jumper on a fastbreak, Marquette coach Buzz Williams called a time out with his team down 18-10. He would call three in the run, sensing his team was losing their way. It didn’t work.
Henson hit two lay-ups, Barnes hit a 3-pointer and Leslie McDonald scored on a rebound follow to push the lead to 27-10 with 4:41 to go in the half.
Marquette’s futility ended when Butler hit a jumper with 3:54 to go, ending a nearly nine-minute scoring drought for the Golden Eagles, who scored five points in the final 12:42 of the half to fall behind 40-15.
North Carolina added to Marquette’s misery in the opening minutes of the second half, scoring the first six points to open a 46-15 lead.
After the second basket, Williams called another time-out. Strickland then stole the inbound pass and scored on a fastbreak to further embarrass the Golden Eagles.
“I thought in the first half we were pitiful,” Buzz Williams said. “We shot 52 percent in the second half, which is more aligned with what we typically do. They shot 38 percent in the second half, which is ideally what we want to hold teams to.”
Arizona assistant Emanuel Richardson has been a coach, mentor and friend to Kemba Walker since UConn’s star guard was 14.
Richardson, known to everyone as “Book,” coached Walker on a traveling team in New York, occasionally allowing the precocious guard to sleep on his couch before trips to tournaments.
“He allowed me to be family to him,” Richardson said. “His mom was great in that she allowed me to be around him. I think she realized I didn’t want anything from him except for him to be great. I would always challenge him, how great do you want to be? That’s a state of mind.”
Richardson joined coach Sean Miller’s staff at Xavier before following him out west to Tucson. Richardson’s strong ties to New York have resulted in several recruiting coups for Miller’s teams, but Walker is eager to show one of his father figures what he’s learned.
“Book taught me a lot of things,” Walker said. “He’s a big part of who I am as a player.”
Richardson still imparts advice to Walker when they speak or meet — including a bit that could come back to bite the Wildcats on Saturday.
“I told him you’re always going to be judged by your wins and your losses,” Richardson said. “As the point guard, every win is yours and every loss is yours. So I would always tell Kemba, lead that team, lead that team. Why not you?”
REMEMBER THE ALAMODOME?: The Alamodome has hosted numerous NCAA tournaments over the years, including Kansas’ last championship in 2008 and the women’s Final Four last year.
But its days as a favored site appear to be waning. This season’s Southwest regional is the last NCAA tournament site scheduled at the Alamodome in the current cycle.
The opening of Reliant Stadium in Houston and Cowboys Stadium in Arlington have given the 18-year-old Alamodome stiff competition in Texas. Reliant is the home of this year’s Final Four.
Lynn Hickey, tournament director and Texas-San Antonio athletic director, said officials are exploring ways to reconfigure the Alamodome to keep luring in the bigger games.
“We have to get creative,” Hickey said.