CHAPEL HILL — Few people know North Carolina senior forward Tyler Zeller as well as his parents, and so they knew well enough to leave him alone before he played his final game at the Smith Center on Wednesday night. It was senior night and Zeller didn't want to be bothered much with ceremony and recognition.
After North Carolina's 88-64 victory against Maryland, though, he finally had a chance to relax. He left the game with about seven minutes to play amid a loud ovation, and with the crowd chanting his name. He had scored 30 points, a career-high for an ACC game, and he walked down the Tar Heels' bench, high-fiving teammates.
"It's a great way to be able to finish," Zeller said of his final home game. "It's something that I'm very proud of. But I think my team did a great job of giving me the ball in places I could score and I just tried to make the most of it."
When he failed to do that, he most often drew a foul. Zeller attempted 23 free throws and made 20 - a Smith Center record.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said his team "couldn't guard" Zeller, and described him as "crafty" in his ability to get to the free throw line.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams put it another way.
"He's got a little bit of that Ichabod Crane clumsiness to him that gets his arm, legs and head going every direction," Williams said, referencing the fictional character from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
"So opposing defensive players have a lot of things that they can foul."
The victory ties No. 6 North Carolina (26-4, 13-2) with No. 4 Duke atop the ACC standings. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils will meet on Saturday night at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium to decide which team wins the ACC's regular-season title and enters the conference tournament with the No. 1 seed.
North Carolina built an early 16-4 lead against the Terrapins (16-13, 6-9) and led 36-25 at halftime. After Maryland cut its deficit to six with 17 minutes, 34 seconds to play, North Carolina outscored the Terps 31-10 during the next 10 minutes.
That stretch included a 21-1 for the Tar Heels, who quickened the pace against a Maryland team that Turgeon said wore down during the second half.
John Henson matched his career-high for a conference game with 19 points and sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall made some history of his own.
He set up Harrison Barnes with a short jumper with 17:59 to play and, when the shot fell, Marshall set a new single-season school record for assists.
He finished the game with eight, which gives him 289 this season. Ed Cota held the previous record with 284.
"It was definitely weighing on me in the first half," Marshall said. "I think we had three pitch-aheads that usually are easy baskets. And we didn't convert on it, or a couple of them were bad passes on my part. Some of them - I don't know what happened."
Despite a 24-point victory, Williams wasn't all that pleased. The Tar Heels were sloppy at times, and shot 39.4 percent. They failed to convert on easy scoring opportunities, and Williams was bothered enough to take off his blazer during one moment of frustration of the second half.
"I get frustrated," he said. "... I'm not coaching to have winning seasons, I'm trying to coach to get my team to be the best team we can possibly be."
The Tar Heels weren't that for much of the game, but it was a memorable senior night nonetheless. Williams and his team gathered after the game and watched a video tribute to the five-man senior class.
Zeller watched himself on one of the arena's large video screens, and at last he could lose himself in the moment.
"To see him go out on top like that," fellow senior Justin Watts said, "all you can do is be happy for him."