Tar Heels enjoy Zeller performance

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Darius Miller's 3-pointer swished through the net and the woman in the stands sighed to her friend, "Oh boy."

It was 51 seconds into North Carolina's game against Kentucky and the Tar Heels trailed 3-0.

But that's how it’s been lately on this end of Tobacco Road. Entitlement had been replaced with insecurity, confidence with an impending sense of doom.

Which goes to explain why, when North Carolina held on for a 75-73 win against No. 11 Kentucky in a game that made up with intensity what it lacked in beauty, the faithful packing the Dean Dome screamed and cheered like the Tar Heels just clinched a Final Four berth.

Fans here endured a brutally ugly season last year, one that ended with just five wins in the ACC and a berth in the NIT. If the self-inflicted disaster wasn't bad enough, Heel fans had to suffer quietly while the other school down the road won a national championship.

So when a new season dawned with promise, with UNC back in the top 25 and most everyone agreeing that this year’s version would be better, the shot-to-the-gut of a 4-3 start was greeted as much with shock as it was disappointment.

Must-wins rarely come in the first week of December, but that's exactly what this game was for North Carolina and when it was over, when the Heels out-scrapped the Wildcats, this was as much a catharsis as a celebration.

"Yeah, a little bit I think we're relieved," forward Tyler Zeller said. "I think we're more excited than anything. This gives us the confidence that we are this caliber of team."

It's a stunning admission that the Heels wondered if they were that team. This is a program only two years removed from a national championship.

What's led to the soul-searching moments is how Carolina has been losing.

Last year and to start this year, the Heels looked disconnected and disjointed, individuals as opposed to the sum of their parts. They lost to Minnesota in Puerto Rico and followed it up with an even less forgivable egg against Vanderbilt. They had to hang on to beat College of Charleston and then were taken to the woodshed by Illinois.

The same problems as last year reared their heads again -- sloppy point guard play, a lack of passion and toughness.

"That loss to Illinois was a wake-up call," guard Dexter Strickland said. "Even though we lost in Puerto Rico it was different. That opened our eyes a little bit."

This win against Kentucky is then as critical for how the Tar Heels won as the final score. Zeller sported scratches on his face and chin and another down the length of his arm, marks he's not sure when or where he earned but figures them for the battle scars from a battle hard won.

"I said all along that I really believe this is going to be a good team," coach Roy Williams said. "We needed to get some breakthroughs. You never can tell how 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds are going to take something, but I know they were having a fun time in that locker room just now. Hopefully we can keep it going."

Kentucky showed equal heart and gumption. On the road, a team lopsided with freshmen didn't play nearly its best game yet managed to have a chance to win it at the end.

The Wildcats have weaknesses -- they are, as most young teams, prone to silly mistakes and haven't found an identifiable leader -- but they also have gobs of talent.

"There were a lot of things going on out there," coach John Calipari said. "But we had a chance to win on the road against North Carolina. I'm proud of our team. Roy told me after the game, 'That wasn't a well-played game, but it was a good game.' To have the run of games that they've had and to beat us like they did, my hat is off to them."

North Carolina, a team known for winning with its offense, actually won it with its defense. The Tar Heels shot the ball fairly terribly -- 36 percent from the floor and a woeful 1-of-11 from behind the arc -- and turned it over 12 times.

But Zeller and John Henson banged the undersized Cats down low, as the Heels put up 34 points in the paint and fought on the boards for 43 rebounds, including a critical 34 on the defensive end.

And using their size advantage, the Tar Heels kept the Wildcats out of the lane and away from the rim. Zeller rejected a career-high five shots and Henson three more as Kentucky settled for 21 3-point attempts thanks to just 7-of-27 shooting in the paint.

The end of the game, indeed, was more a lesson in survival than fluidity. Kentucky spent 9:04 without a field goal, North Carolina the final 6:46. The difference came at the free throw line, where the Tar Heels connected on 14 of their final 16 and UK just five of 10.

Zeller was responsible for 10 of those final points, all at the line. Williams told the junior at the start of the season that it was his time, hype around freshman Harrison Barnes be darned.

Zeller, like his team, had been solid but not spectacular early.

Against Kentucky, he was spectacular.

Zeller finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds to go with those five blocks, all career highs. The only disappointment was that his parents weren’t there to see it. They were scheduled to come in to Chapel Hill on a friend's private plane, but lousy weather in Indiana grounded the Zellers back home.

Tyler received a text from his mom before the game explaining why they wouldn't be there.

"It's alright," Zeller said.

He can afford to shrug it off. In four days North Carolina travels to Evansville, not far from Zeller's Washington, Ind., home.

Typically a game against an average mid-major team wouldn’t loom large for the Tar Heels, but these aren't normal days for North Carolina.

All the goodwill that UNC has built with this win would be all but erased should the Heels stumble in their next game.

"We still have to get better," Zeller said. "We can't be content. Beating Kentucky doesn't make our season. It just helps get our season started."