GREENSBORO, N.C. — John Henson proved he was healthy again, grabbing rebounds and blocking shots in his return from a wrist injury that seemed perfectly timed for North Carolina's latest push for the Final Four.
Now Kendall Marshall has his own wrist injury that could prove devastating for the Tar Heels.
Henson had a double-double in his first game back from a sprained left wrist, and North Carolina beat Creighton 87-73 in the third round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday. But Marshall broke a bone in his right wrist when he was fouled on a drive to the basket and knocked to the floor midway through the second half.
Coach Roy Williams confirmed the injury after the game, and said he would talk to Marshall and his parents about his status Sunday night. The point guard still finished with 18 points and 11 assists.
"When you go to the Sweet 16, it's supposed to be a lot more fun than this," an emotional Williams said afterward.
Marshall's injury overshadowed what should have been an exciting win for the Tar Heels (31-5), the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional. They built a 15-point lead in the first half, then kept control and pushed the margin to 19 after the break on the way to their second straight double-digit victory. Their defense was good enough to slow the eighth-seeded Bluejays' offense and make high-scoring forward Doug McDermott work for his points.
Then there was Henson's return after missing the past three games with the wrist injury from last week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Instead, the Tar Heels are unsure whether they'll have their most irreplaceable player – the guy who drives Williams' fast-paced attack with unparalleled court vision and perfect pitch-aheads in transition – for the rest of the tournament.
"I just want to be here for my team," said Marshall, his eyes red with emotion. "It is what it is. We're not saying that I'm not going to play. We're not saying that I'm going to play. Bottom line, it's a fracture and now I have to deal with it."
Williams cleared reporters out of the locker room to inform the team of Marshall's injury, then headed to his postgame news conference. The rest of the players struggled with the news.
"We just don't know what we're going to do at this point in time," sophomore Harrison Barnes said.
Marshall, who is left-handed, was hurt when he was knocked to the floor by Ethan Wragge on a drive with 10:56 left. He made the first free throw, then missed the second before leaving the game. He played about 7 more minutes before leaving for good with 1:54 left. Trainer Chris Hirth then examined Marshall's right wrist on the bench.
The Tar Heels had already lost top perimeter defender and No. 2 ballhandler Dexter Strickland to a season-ending knee injury in January, leaving only freshman Stilman White to relieve Marshall for spot duty. If Marshall can't go, the job would likely fall to White and versatile senior Justin Watts.
"It's a little bit shocking," White said. "I know for sure I didn't expect it to be that bad. I know Kendall's a really tough guy. It's just a little bit of shock right now. That's the great thing about coach Williams – he always figures something out."
The Tar Heels will face surprising Ohio in the round of 16 on Friday in St. Louis. The 13th-seeded Bobcats advanced with a 62-56 victory over South Florida.
As for Henson, his return drew a roar from the home-state fans filling the Greensboro Coliseum, both when he jogged out with his teammates for pregame warmups and when he was introduced during the starting lineups.
Henson had 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in 28 minutes. Much of the time, Henson looked like his old self, knocking down midrange jumpers or using his long frame to snatch rebounds or swat shots.
He drew a technical foul in the first half when he got angry and started jawing with Creighton's Grant Gibbs – who had chopped at the ball in Henson's hands in the paint. He also had a moment when he cringed after taking a blow to the hand on another foul, which forced Williams to pull him briefly in the first half.
"Yeah, it was a little weaker than I wanted it to be, and I wasn't as strong with the grip as I wanted," Henson said. "But hey, we got the win and that's all you can ask for."
Marshall's injury overshadowed Henson's return and the reunion of McDermott and Barnes, who teamed together to lead Ames High School in Iowa to consecutive state championships and unbeaten seasons. McDermott came in averaging about 23 points and eight rebounds, while Barnes was leading the Tar Heels in scoring at about 17 per game.
That matchup never materialized, with Henson and freshman James Michael McAdoo getting most of the defensive work against McDermott. McDermott finished with 20 points and nine rebounds.
Barnes had 17 points on 7-for-19 shooting, including back-to-back 3-pointers to turn away Creighton's final push after the Bluejays had closed within 12 with about 5 1/2 minutes left.
"Right before the game, we just shared a moment, but once the game started, we were both competitive guys and it didn't feel weird at all," McDermott said. "I didn't realize I was playing against my former teammate the whole time until the end and he's a really good player."
Creighton came in leading the country with a 50.7 percent shooting average, but it couldn't figure out a way to put the on-the-attack Tar Heels on the defensive. Creighton shot 41 percent.
North Carolina hit 14 of its first 19 shots and built a 39-24 lead on Barnes' 3-pointer with 5 1/2 minutes left. UNC led by eight at half, but Creighton never got closer after the break. The Tar Heels shot 51 percent for the game and improved to 31-1 in NCAA games played in their home state.
"We came here with every intention of winning this game," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "You don't get to this point if you don't feel that way, regardless of who you're playing."