North Carolina guard Kendall Marshall blocks a shot by Marquette guard… (Ray Stubblebine / Reuters )
NEWARK, N.J. -- Marquette Coach Buzz Williams called timeout during the first half Friday, put his hands in his pockets and exhaled deeply.
In a media timeout with less than three minutes remaining, he was clapping and gathering his team around him enthusiastically with hopes of a desperate rally.
After finding ways to stage upset comebacks in its first two NCAA tournament games, the 11th-seeded Golden Eagles couldn't devise a method to solve this complex problem in its huddle:
North Carolina's size and athleticism.
Kentucky knocks off top-seeded Ohio State, 62-60l
Marquette's first-half stiffness caused it to stumble to an 81-63 loss to second-seeded North Carolina at the Prudential Center, ending its underdog run through the tournament.
"In the first half I thought we were pitiful," Williams said. "Their length and athleticism when you're trying to play without assisted baskets becomes even more overwhelming."
The victory propelled the Tar Heels (29-7) along their peaks-and-valley ride, from national title in 2009 to a dreaded NIT appearance last season and now to the Elite Eight.
North Carolina advances to Sunday's game against fourth-seeded Kentucky.
NCAA tournament interactive bracket
"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."
Whether 11th-seeded Marquette's offense vanished or North Carolina took its defense to a new level can be debated.
The result was Marquette (22-15) played its worst first half of the season, falling light years behind North Carolina 40-15.
"I thought we were just totally uncharacteristic in the first half," Williams said. "That's a complete credit to them."
After Marquette took a 10-8 lead, it struggled through 9 minutes, 14 seconds without a field goal as North Carolina went on a 19-0 run for a 27-12 lead.
Marquette, clearly bothered by North Carolina's height with Zeller and John Henson, shot only 6-for-30, produced no assists and turned the ball over 12 times in the first half while missing all eight 3-point attempts. Gardner came off the bench to lead the Golden Eagles with 16 points and Jimmy Butler supplied 14 points.
The Golden Eagles recovered after halftime, shooting 51.5 percent and scoring 48 points in the second half and cutting the Tar Heels' 32-point lead to 14 with 3:35 remaining.
But by that time the hole was too deep.