CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Tyler Zeller isn’t quite over it. Maybe he never will be.
But after scoring 25 points, pulling down nine rebounds, and witnessing the cheers and standing ovations during North Carolina’s 70-52 victory over No. 20 Virginia on Saturday, the 7-foot senior can exhale.
And start to move on.
“It is tough to lose like that,” he said of Wednesday’s Duke defeat, “and not have it necessarily completely on your shoulders, but partially on your shoulders.… It’s tough when that’s the last thing you’ve done, the last thing you can remember. It’s tough. But today’s performance does help. Hopefully I can forget about it for a while.”
It was just three days ago that Zeller, whose 19-point first-half performance had helped put his team in position to beat archrival Duke, saw it all fall apart around him. With UNC leading by 10 points, he missed two free throws, accidentally tipped in a shot for Duke, then failed to get a hand up in time to alter Austin Rivers’ game-winning 3-pointer -- all within the final 2 minutes, 38 seconds.
“I have a tendency to take a lot of losses hard,’’ Zeller said.
So much so after Wednesday's defeat that he didn’t go to bed until 5 a.m., trying to watch a movie to distract him but instead staring into space.
Thursday, he sat in the furthest corner of the back of his class, avoiding fellow students and what they might say.
He didn’t turn on a TV until Friday.
And even a call from coach Roy Williams didn’t make him feel better, although Williams tried in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.
“He said I was one of the few guys that could make him laugh,’’ Williams said. “I asked him Thursday night when I called him late, ‘Are you thinking about getting the knives out and slicing your wrist?’ He said ‘Maybe.’ And I said ‘Well, if you're going to do that then call me and I'll come do it with you.’ I told him my son would want to know it first, so he could change the will so he could get control of everything. He [Zeller] liked that.”
All joking aside, though, it wasn’t until Friday’s practice, then Saturday’s game, that Zeller really started feeling good again.
When he walked on to the court for pregame warm-ups, he heard cheers from the early arrivers. When he went to the free throw line, about three minutes into the game, a fan screamed “We love you, Tyler!”
After a slow offensive start in which he made only one of his first six field goals, he finally found his rhythm, making 8 of his last 11.
That included seven points during a game-breaking 22-5 run that turned a 41-39 deficit into a 61-46 lead with 6:24 left.
“We got it up to 15 points, and then [the Cavaliers] scored two baskets in a row,’’ Williams said. “And then one of the guys in the huddle said, ‘Remember Wednesday night,’ and I said, ‘No, don’t remember Wednesday night, let’s just play today.”’
Although, according to forward John Henson, the thought remained in the players’ heads. “We said ‘Keep attacking, keep trying to score.’ Because I think that’s what we didn’t do in the Duke game. And that’s what we did.”
UNC was helped by the fact that Mike Scott (18 points), Virginia’s ACC Player of the Year candidate, got into foul trouble early. And that the Tar Heels’ bench (James Michael McAdoo, Justin Watts, Stilman White), despite missing freshman wing P.J. Hairston because of a sore foot, contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Saturday marked only the third time in the past 15 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information, that the Tar Heels have won a game with a 3-point field goal percentage of 10 percent or worse (they were 1-for-10).
But they outrebounded the Cavaliers 48-31. And when their shots weren’t falling outside, they could count on ‘Big Z’ inside; he was the only UNC starter who shot better than 50 percent.
"He showed today why he's one of our best players,'' Henson said, "and I hope he keeps playing that way."
After receiving a standing ovation when he exited the game with 1:42 left to play, Zeller thanked the fans in his postgame comments. The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on him, considering the final minutes of Wednesday’s game.
Which now, perhaps, can become more of a distant memory.
Said Williams: “[Zeller] is a very sensitive kid. It was tough on him. People were tough on him -- very, very, very unfairly.… He’s having a great, great year. He's playing big time basketball for us. I couldn't be happier for anybody for what he did [in the Virginia game] right now. He's a tough, tough kid.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.