WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller really does wish he could explain why he’s been so aggressive lately, how he’s been hitting the boards so hard, what he’s changed to set career high after career high in rebounds.
But the 7-footer’s response, after pulling down 18 boards during the offense-plagued Tar Heels’ 68-53 win at Wake Forest on Tuesday night, was familiar.
A shrug. Then a grin.
“I really don’t know. I’m just going out there and playing,’’ the senior insisted.
And well. Zeller’s newest career high -- following the career-best 17 boards he recorded against NC State last week, which followed the career-best 14 he logged in the loss at Florida State on Jan. 14 -- helped offset an ugly offensive effort during which the Tar Heels shot a season-low 31 percent.
Zeller also led his team with 18 points in a game that saw leading scorer Harrison Barnes (13 points, seven rebounds) leave the court because of a rolled left ankle in the first half and play the second half in pain.
Forward John Henson added 14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks for the Tar Heels.
The Demon Deacons, who have now lost six of their past seven games, shot 29.6 percent.
“It was an ugly game, and sometimes you have to win ugly if you’re going to have a great year,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Having an invigorated big guy helps, too.
When Zeller opened the game by scoring off his own miss, it was a sign of things to come.
The Tar Heels, who made 10 3-pointers against Georgia Tech on Sunday, struggled to hit just about anything at Joel Coliseum. They connected on only 12 of their 35 shots in the first half, and a third of their points came off second-chance baskets.
“I thought our work in the first half on the backboards was key, and then in the second half we were just a little more fortunate than they were,’’ Williams said.
Sixth-ranked UNC led 36-24 at halftime, but it took almost nine minutes for any Tar Heel but Zeller (who had a field goal and four free throws during that time period) to score in the second half. Eventually, North Carolina pulled away with a 16-1 run that culminated with a layup off an offensive rebound by Zeller that gave the Tar Heels a 60-38 cushion.
“I really didn’t think I had that many rebounds,’’ Zeller said. “In the second half, I was thinking I had eight or nine, so I just kept going for one more, one more.”
And they’re adding up.
In the first 10 games of the season, Zeller recorded only two double-digit rebounding games. In his past 12 outings, he’s posted 10.
Williams has said the “big fella” is getting better positioning in the lane, but teammates have noticed more focus, too.
“It’s just his aggressive nature now -- I think everybody’s noticed that he’s more aggressive,’’ said point guard Kendall Marshall, who scored a season-high 14 points. “It’s not the fact that he wasn’t aggressive before, it’s just that he’s become a leader, vocally and by his actions. Before, he went out there and got the job done. But now he’s really speaking up on and off the court and getting the job done even better.”
So much better that he grinned (and shrugged, again) when asked if he’ll keep breaking his career highs and eventually pull down 20. He pointed out that he managed only three boards (against Georgia Tech) between his 17- and 18-rebound efforts, “so I had to make up for that.”
He added: “I don’t know what’s changed, but I’ve gotten better at it and I just want it to continue.”
BRIEFLY: Barnes said he injured his left ankle while was running down the court. “It was a freak accident, and I just rolled it,’’ he said. “It’s a lot of pain, so we’ll go from here.”
Williams said Barnes will get a couple of days to rest the ankle, since UNC doesn’t play again until Saturday at Maryland, “and hopefully he will be ready to play on the weekend.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.