DeCock: Quiet redemption for UNC's Zeller

ldecock@newsobserver.comMarch 3, 2012 

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UNC's Tyler Zeller (44) puts up a shot over Duke's Mason Plumlee and Miles Plumlee (21) in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — ROBERT WILLETT - rwillett@newsobserver.com

— When the final moments of this one rolled around, Tyler Zeller wasn’t even on the floor. He was watching from the bench, having fouled out with 51 seconds to go. There was no last-minute shot this time, only a victory to savor.

For the second straight year, and only the seventh time in the history of the rivalry, the ACC regular-season championship came down to the final game between Duke and North Carolina. There was more on the line than that, of course: Most notably a settling of scores from the way the first meeting ended.

No one had more of a score to settle than Zeller, the North Carolina center who accidentally tipped in a Duke shot late in the first game on Feb. 8, then watched as Austin Rivers sunk the last-second game-winner over his outstretched arms. When the final seconds ticked off Saturday, Zeller’s only responsibility was celebrating an 88-70 win.

“First of all, I just wanted to win the game,” Zeller said. “Being able to come and play for an ACC title is a great opportunity and I thought we took advantage of it. But I also wanted to come out and play well just because of the way it did end (last time).”

Zeller had a lot to do with that, with 19 points and 10 rebounds for his 16th double-double of the season, but in many ways his performance personified North Carolina’s vindication from that first meeting with Duke.

The Tar Heels let a late 10-point lead slip away that night; Saturday, they doubled up the Blue Devils by halftime and fought off the inevitable second-half Duke run before pulling away for a comfortable win.

If that was sweet revenge for the Tar Heels, it was doubly so for Zeller. Much of the criticism directed at him after the Smith Center loss was unfair; there was little he could do about the tip-in, and everyone – including Seth Curry – was expecting Rivers to take the ball to the rim, not pull up for a 3-pointer to win.

Still, there was all the incentive in the world to play well Saturday, and Zeller left no doubt.

“Being a senior, probably ACC player of the year, coming in here after losing to them and playing big like he did tonight, you can’t ask for anything more,” North Carolina teammate Harrison Barnes said. “And an ACC title on top? Nothing better.”

Given the quality of the first two meetings between the rivals, if the basketball gods are kind, there will be a third a week from today, which would be the 12th time they have met in the ACC championship game, including last year.

But a neutral court wouldn’t have the atmosphere of a home game, particularly with ESPN’s Gameday and Peyton Manning in the house as they were Saturday. And it wouldn’t have the Duke fans sarcastically serenading Zeller before the game, thanking him for his inadvertent contributions to the Blue Devils’ win in Chapel Hill.

“I think I might be one of the few people the whole place has chanted my name when I was on the away team,” Zeller said. “It was interesting, but I’m glad I played well.”

So many opponents have left Cameron with the fans’ taunts ringing in their ears over the years. After Zeller’s final game as a visitor, he’ll remember having turned their own words back on them.

DeCock: twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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