CHAPEL HILL — Entering the season, fans were looking to North Carolinas highly-touted freshmen to lead their team back to prominence. But with a much-needed victory on the line Saturday, it the juniors who made the biggest impact for the Tar Heels down the stretch.
While point guard Larry Drew II clamped down on defense, 7-footer Tyler Zeller scored 12 of UNCs final 16 points to top No. 10 Kentucky 75-73 at the Smith Center
It was as close to a must-win as you could get this early in the season for the Tar Heels (5-3), considering they had already lost three games, fallen out of the top-25, and were facing serious questions about their toughness, offense, and ability to improve.
It was extremely important for us, for every reason, to go out there and win the game, said Drew, who helped his team hold the Wildcats to two field goals in the final 9 minutes, 57 seconds of the game. Nobody came in here with the mindset of What if this happens? or What if this doesnt happen? We all came in here to say, were going to get this win no matter what.
Indeed, UNC won despite the fact that Kentucky (5-2) made 42.9 percent of its 3-point shots; the Tar Heels didnt score a field goal for the final 6:46 of the game; and superfreshman Harrison Barnes (12 points), who scored seven straight first-half points in a crowd-igniting display, went scoreless after halftime.
Poise, execution and clutch free throw shooting were key.
Trailing 67-66 with 1:36 left, for example, Drew came out of a timeout with one thing on his mind: get the ball to Zeller, who had made six straight free throws and was dominating Kentuckys thin, foul-plagued frontcourt.
They were either going to foul me or I was going to get a lay-up, said Zeller, explaining his mindset down the stretch.
And thats just what happened. Instead of playing as a bunch of nervous individuals and throwing up an errant jump shot which has happened all too often this season and last -- the Tar Heels got the ball to their hot hand in the lane. Zeller got fouled, buried two more free throws and put his team ahead.
Kentucky took the lead one more time on its next play, when forward Josh Harrellson out-wrestled Zeller for an offensive rebound and scored to make it 69-68 with 53 seconds left. But Zeller followed with another two free throws to give his team back a 70-69 lead, then Drew followed with two more foul shots after that to give the Tar Heels enough of a cushion to survive the final 21 seconds.
Zeller made 11 of his 12 free throws for the game and finished with a career-high 27 points, plus 11 rebounds and five blocks; teammate John Henson recorded his fourth double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds of the season). The duo also held UK freshman Terrance Jones, who was averaging a double-double, to 9 points and 6 rebounds before he fouled out.
Although Drews shooting slump continued he was 2-for-7 he helped hold Wildcats freshman point guard Brandon Knight (15 points) to 1-for-6 shooting in the second half. Carolina also only had three second-half turnovers, and the juniors calm was key, as he showed the experience that the freshman class has yet to go through in tight games.
One of the things I do on planes is when it starts shaking, I look to the flight attendants, and if theyre freaking out, Im freaking out, Drew said. But if they dont, and theyre calm and relaxed, then Im like OK, theyve been through this. So Im sort of like the flight attendant, in a sense, when things are getting heated, and its getting close if my teammates look to me, and Im relaxed and poised, then they know theyre going to be ready to do anything.
That attitude will be key for the Tar Heels, as they continue to try to improve their shooting (1-for-11 from 3-point land) and cohesiveness. And while the freshmen continue to improve, the juniors made one thing clear with their performance: right now, they are the best leaders.
I think everybody plays a role, and each game, it might change, Zeller said. But the upperclassmen did make plays today.
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