Zeller paces UNC with 31 points

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- In an attempt to try to prepare his squad for how quickly North Carolina’s big guys can get ahead of a fast break, Appalachian State coach Jason Capel had team managers start sprinting at half-court during practice last week. Then he told his players, beginning from the baseline, to try to catch them.

“But nothing can prepare you for a 7-footer running that fast,’’ the former Tar Heels forward said after his team lost 97-82 at the Smith Center. “It’s impossible to do.”

Using a bevy of hook shots, free throws – and yes, fast-break buckets – 7-foot UNC senior Tyler Zeller led the Tar Heels with 31 points (one shy of tying his career high).

Coach Roy Williams said the forward has had better all-around outings this year. But, according to Zeller, “it was just one of those games where everything seemed to be going in.”

Then again, it always helps to have a tall guy who can beat everyone to the bucket.

“Z does a great job running,’’ said point guard Kendall Marshall, who finished with 13 assists and only 2 turnovers. “He kind of reminds me of a deer almost when he gets out and runs.”

“[Then] when he gets in the post, he does such a great job of getting post depth and showing me his whole body, I have no choice by to give him the ball.”

Marshall got Zeller the ball early and often Saturday, as the forward scored 7 points en route to UNC’s early 13-2 lead.

He scored his 20th point, just before halftime, when Marshall threw up an almost-full-court shot/pass with time winding down that ended up ricocheting off the rim and into the hands of teammate Dexter Strickland. Strickland then found Zeller for the bucket, which gave the Tar Heels a 48-32 lead.

The field goal was Zeller’s reward for sprinting down the court so fast. It was an advantage he realized he could use during the pregame, when an assistant coach wrote the opposing players’ names, heights and weights on a planning board in the locker room.

The dimensions of 6-foot-10, 290-pound Mountaineer Isaac Butts particularly stood out.

“We saw 290, and I think John [Henson] was the first one to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to get out on them … because we know 290 is tough to run,” Zeller said.

UNC built a lead as large as 29 points (76-47, on a Zeller free throw) in the second half before the Mountaineers dug back.

"We were really good for about the last 4 minutes of the first half and the first 4-5 minutes of the second half," said Williams, whose team had limited practice time this week because of exams. "And then we went brain-dead there for a while."

Still, the Tar Heels never trailed, and led by double figures for the entire second half as Zeller flirted with setting a new career high. But when he checked back into the game at the 6:41 mark with 31 points in his pocket, he didn’t attempt another shot before exiting again with 4 minutes to go.

“I don’t get caught up in that as much as everyone else,’’ he said of his numbers. “I thought it was funny when I missed a free throw [with 10:15 left], but just because it was one point short of 30 and everybody got kind of sad. But it was just something that … [once I checked back in], if I got the ball again, I’d try scoring it, and if not, then I’ll end up with 31.”

Zeller also finished with 10 rebounds, while Henson added 17 points and Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston chipped in 10 points apiece.

Omar Carter led Appalachian State with 21 points off the bench, but the Mountaineers – despite all that sprinting in practice this week – just couldn’t quite keep up.

“It’s something that we’re always looking for,’’ Zeller said of his team’s fast break. “It’s kind of funny, I heard their coach one time: I ran down and got a layup – and he said, ‘I told you he was going to do that.’”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.