CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina isn't going to make anyone forget last season's misery playing like this.
Tyler Zeller scored a career-high 23 points to help the 25th-ranked Tar Heels beat UNC Asheville 80-69 on Tuesday night, though North Carolina blew most of a 22-point lead in the second half of its first game since returning from a frustrating trip to Puerto Rico.
Freshman Harrison Barnes added 13 points for the Tar Heels (3-2). But on what appeared to be an easy night, North Carolina couldn't put away the Bulldogs (2-2) and instead found itself protecting a six-point lead with 5 minutes to play.
The Tar Heels held on to improve to 7-0 in the series against the instate program from the Big South Conference. But this couldn't have been a confidence-builder for a young team that struggled in back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
"If I live through this team, I think we're going to be a heck of a lot better at the end of the year," coach Roy Williams said after a longer-than-usual postgame talk with his team in the locker room. "And there is a big question if I'm going to live through it."
Zeller provided some good news by setting his career high in scoring for the second straight game. The junior 7-footer made his first seven shots and finished 8 for 11 from the field and 7 for 9 from the foul line to go with seven rebounds. He had 20 points in Sunday's loss to Vanderbilt.
Barnes also had seven rebounds and hit all three of his 3-point tries, and John Henson had 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots. But the Tar Heels made too many mistakes (19 turnovers), had defensive lapses (including one that led to a layup at the halftime horn) and followed stretches of strong play with ones in which they looked more like they were thinking about the Thanksgiving holiday.
When asked whether his team improved with the win, Williams said, "We learned things tonight. We had a great number of opportunities to learn from our mistakes. If we learn from it, I'll say yes. But it's their responsibility. We've got to show it to them, and we will, and they've got to make some adjustments."
It's early yet and the Tar Heels seem to have a little more perimeter scoring punch than they did during last year's 17-loss season. Williams also thought his team looked tired after playing four games in six days. But he isn't interested in anything remotely resembling a repeat performance.
"He was just telling us as a team we've got to know our roles," Henson said. "That's one thing that we are figuring out right now. Once we figure that out, we can be a great, great team."
J.P. Primm scored 21 points to lead UNC Asheville, which opened the season by rallying from a 16-point deficit on the road to beat Auburn in overtime. While the Bulldogs didn't come all that close to pulling off a bigger upset, they did give North Carolina a bit of a wake-up call -- something the Tar Heels shouldn't have needed considering what happened the previous two games.
In the losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt, the Tar Heels didn't match physical play inside and failed to push the pace and get the easy baskets that drive their fast-paced attack. The Tar Heels barely stayed in the Top 25 this week after starting the season at No. 8.
North Carolina shot 54 percent in the first half to build a 44-31 lead, then opened the second half with an 11-2 spurt that ended with Zeller's hook shot for a 55-33 lead with 16:43 left.
But from there, the Tar Heels seemed content to cruise the rest of the way while the Bulldogs kept fighting. They inched their way back, cutting the deficit to 11 points with 6 1/2 minutes left before getting as close as 70-64 on a 3 from Primm with 5:06 to play.
"I don't want to use any terminology like scared or anything like that, because we're not," UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said. "Our guys are good players. They respond to the challenges, and we came in here wanting to win this game."
The Tar Heels played without freshman swingman Reggie Bullock, who sat out because of a sore left knee that had required surgery during high school.