CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Back when he was a freshman, North Carolina 7-footer Tyler Zeller said, he never could have imagined making 20 free throws in a game.
“I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance to shoot that many times, to shoot that many free throws,’’ he said, laughing.
That just shows another way the senior, and his game, have grown up.
The ACC Player of the Year candidate scored 30 points -- his career high in an ACC game -- to lead the sixth-ranked Tar Heels to an 88-64 win over Maryland on Wednesday night.
Twenty of those points came from the foul line, setting a new Smith Center record in his final game at the arena he’s called home for the past four seasons. The win sets up a Saturday showdown at Duke to decide the ACC regular-season title.
“That’s just a storybook finish for him,’’ said point guard Kendall Marshall, who set the UNC record for assists in a season during the victory.
Storybook? Yes, especially with his parents watching from the stands, the student section waving ‘Z’ cards, the crowd roaring pretty much every time he entered or exited the game.
But the performance also displayed the new chapter that Zeller -- who has grown from a skinny, shy freshman reserve into a respected, award-worthy starter and leader -- has systematically added to his repertoire.
He had 15 points (seven from the foul line) by halftime. And with his team leading by only six points early in the second half, Zeller scored the Tar Heels’ next 10 points (eight on free throws, one on a putback) to jump-start UNC’s game-opening 31-10 run.
“We couldn’t guard him all night,’’ said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who had two of his big guys foul out trying to do so. “He kept drawing fouls on us, and controlled the game at the foul line.”
That couldn’t have been said of Zeller two or three seasons ago, when his trips to the line were either few or far between.
Getting stronger helped. With the aid of strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian, Zeller said he’s worked his way from 210 pounds as a freshman to 240 pounds now. And it shows in the way he can take (and keep) better position on the block.
“I think he’s a more physical player,’’ said UNC forward John Henson, who finished with 19 points. “Even today, he was just burying those guys under the basket, and a player like Z, if he gets it within 6 or 8 feet, it’s going to be hard to guard him, let alone block him, without fouling.”
Zeller credits experience for knowing how to get to the line, too -- feeling when to spin, when to fake, timing when his opponent might bite.
“He does have tremendous savvy,’’ said coach Roy Williams, whose team shot only 39.4 percent for the game. “He can turn to either shoulder … and be able to score. And he’s got a little of that Ichobod Crane clumsiness to him, where he gets his arms and legs and head going in every direction, so those opposing defensive players have a lot of things they can foul.”
And they did Wednesday. Often.
Turgeon even joked that his 7-foot freshman, Alex Len, “needs to go the Zeller school of drawing fouls. Maybe I can send him down here this summer to work with Zeller, so he can be that guy in the future for us.”
After all, Zeller learned.
In the end, the senior made 20 of 23 shots from the line, plus five of his 12 field goals. And he pulled down eight rebounds before leaving the game with a hug from Williams, and a standing ovation from the fans, with 6:39 left.
“The only way I could have made it better is if I could have gotten two more rebounds and gotten a double-double,’’ Zeller said, smiling.
He probably couldn’t have imagined saying that, either, just three seasons ago.
Correction: This version of the story has been corrected to state that UNC made its run after leading by only six. Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.