UNC's Tyler Zeller takes tough loss with faith

ctudor@newsobserver.comMarch 26, 2012 

UNCKAKSAS23-SP-032512-RTW

UNC's Tyler Zeller (44) puts up a shot over Kansas' Jeff Withey (5) in the second half of the championship game of the NCAA Tournament Midwest region on Sunday March 25, 2012 at the Edward Jones Dome in St.Louis.

ROBERT WILLETT — ROBERT WILLETT - rwillett@newsobserver.com

— An opportunity to become the first North Carolina basketball players with two national championship rings ended Sunday for Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts.

Both got to play a minute or so in 2009 at Detroit when the Tar Heels buried Michigan State in the title game.

But the bid for doubles ended at the Edward Jones Dome in the 2012 NCAA Midwest championship when Kansas pulled away late and took an 80-67 win.

The victory sends the Jayhawks (31-6) to the New Orleans Final Four and a shot against Ohio State (31-7) in Saturday’s national semifinals.

The loss sends Carolina (32-6) back to regroup after a trying season marked by crushing injuries to playmaker Kendall Marshall, backup playmaker Dexter Strickland, wingman Leslie McDonald and ACC defensive player of the year John Henson.

But among the Tar Heels, no one on the playing court Sunday suffered more than Zeller, a 7-foot senior center and the ACC player of the year. Even as he fought back tears, Zeller attempted to deal with his emotions.

“It all comes back to my faith. My faith has got me through a lot of things,” Zeller said. “I think my faith is the reason I am who I am today."

“Everything happens for a reason. I don’t know why it is. I don’t. I may question why God put us in this situation, but at the same time, he has a reason for everything. So you just got to accept it. And unfortunately, it hurts extremely bad right now. Maybe I’ll understand it later. Maybe I won’t. But you just got to go with it.”

No one on Carolina’s roster battled ill fortune better than Zeller, who was injured as a freshman, injured again as sophomore and had to gain almost 25 pounds of muscle to become the NBA first-round draft pick he will become on June 28 in Newark, N.J. – the city in which his junior season ended with a loss to Kentucky in the NCAA East Regional title game.

“You can’t be a more perfect student-athlete than Tyler Zeller,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “So right now, it’s just that there’s no way to put into words the way we feel. There’s no way to put into words the way I feel. But I tell you what, I feel awfully lucky to have coached Tyler Zeller.”

In addition to winning ACC player of the year, Zeller also was named as the NCAA’s top academic performer.

Zeller didn’t leave without putting up a fight – 12 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in 34 court minutes against a Kansas frontline that was just as big, mobile and relentless as that of the Heels.

“He’s a great player,” said Kansas Thomas Robinson. “We had to do our best against him, and that’s what we did our best to do.”

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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