CHAPEL HILL — Wednesday's loss to Duke left North Carolina's Tyler Zeller in such a dark-blue mood that Tar Heel coach Roy Williams felt compelled to try a to attempt a tonic of gallows humor.
"Thursday night, when I called him late, I said 'Are you thinking about getting the knives out and slashing your wrists?'" Williams said Saturday.
"He said 'Maybe.' And I said if you're going to do that, call me and I'll come over and do it with you."
Zeller didn't lose the game against Duke, of course. He had an unfortunate last minute.
But Saturday, against Virginia in the Smith Center, the Tar Heels could not have won without the 7-foot senior center.
Had it not been for Zeller's 25 points, nine rebounds and three assists in a 70-52 win, the rest of his Heels shot so poorly that the crushing loss to Duke could have led to another against the Cavaliers.
At 21-4 overall and 8-2 in the ACC, the Heels held to a share of the league lead.
And if there was any question about Zeller's resolve to move past the Duke game and lead his team, it ended quickly. The Cavaliers (19-5, 6-4) held the rest of North Carolina's lineup to 45 points and 15-of-52 shooting.
But during the final minute of the 85-84 loss to the Blue Devils, Zeller missed two free throws, inadvertently tipped in a Duke miss and failed to stop a game-winning shot by Austin Rivers.
Zeller was distraught.
"He's a very sensitive kid. It was tough on him and people were tough on him, and very unfairly," Williams said.
"He's a tough, tough kid. We had a chance to visit and he said I was one of the few people who could make him laugh."
Asked if the coach's Thursday phone call actually cheered him up, Zeller said, "Not really."
An emotional sort by nature, Zeller didn't deny that the Duke game took a mental toll.
"The past two days have been very tough ... I stewed over it. I went to bed about five o'clock. I didn't sleep much," Zeller said.
"For the most part I just sat around and thought back on it. I have a tendency to take losses hard, especially when you miss two free throws that could have won it ... I didn't go out in public."
But the Smith Center crowd on Saturday went far toward lifting Zeller's morale even before he scored his first bucket.
"I have to thank all the Carolina fans, because they've been great to me," Zeller said. "Even when I went to class, they never said anything to me. They've been very positive. I think I got a text message from everybody in the phone book Thursday.
"At the shoot around before the game, they all cheered. I know I let them down, but at the same time they've been very supportive and helped me, and I have to thank them a lot for that."
Virginia can thank those fans for nothing.
For much of the game, the Cavaliers had North Carolina moving at the deliberate pace Tony Bennett has used with fairly stunning success this season. Even with star forward Mike Scott on the bench with two fouls for 10 minutes in the first half, the Wahoos were down only three points at intermission.
But in the second half, Zeller and frontcourt teammates Harrison Barnes, John Henson and James Michael McAdoo buried Virginia on the boards.
No one enjoyed the outcome more than Zeller.
"It's feel great to get this one," Zeller said. "It doesn't make the Duke game go away, but it's great to get past these last two days."