CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – With 13.3 seconds left, North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller was not supposed to be an option. Actually, he said, he was the only Tar Heel on the court who wasn’t supposed to be an option.
The fact that he became the option – scoring on a driving, decisive, one-handed dunk to secure a bruising 54-51 victory at Virginia on Saturday – showed again why he might also be the option for ACC Player of the Year.
“Z,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said after his team made only a third of its field goals, but prevailed at John Paul Jones Arena, “was huge for us.”
Against a team with limited tall players in the post, the 7-footer was, frankly, supposed to be. After all, he was the only Carolina starter who shot better than (or even close to) 50 percent the last time these two teams met (a UNC win in Chapel Hill on Feb. 11.)
And after making only 3 of his 7 shots Tuesday night during a win at NC State, Zeller seemed primed for an outburst here – especially with another ACC-Player-of-the-Year candidate, Virginia’s Mike Scott – on the court.
“This game, I think I was more aggressive [than Tuesday],’’ Zeller said. “Just finding a way to score.”
He used that attitude, and his size advantage, from the get-go, recording the seventh-ranked Tar Heels’ first 10 points en route to an 18-10 lead.
But even with Scott in foul trouble, Virginia used its hard-nosed, top-five defense to grind back, taking a 30-26 lead at halftime and going up by as much as 6 – 37-31 – in the second half.
“I thought we played pretty well through the night,’’ Cavaliers senior guard Sammy Zeglinski (11 points) said. “We played the game at our tempo. We battled, definitely.”
Indeed, with the Cavs putting extra pressure on Zeller (and the passing lanes to him), the senior seemed to disappear for a while, as fellow tall guy John Henson took up the slack by scoring 11 of his 15 points in the second half.
But in the final minutes, Zeller made his presence felt, again.
With 4:10 left – and his team getting better spacing because of a new offensive set – Zeller’s layup gave his team a 52-49 cushion.
After Virginia’s Jontel Evans (13 points) scored on a steal-and-layup with 3:09 left, and both teams traded misses on their next two possessions, Zeller stepped – well, leaped – up again, with the shot clock winding down.
Even though he was supposed to serve as a screener, not a scorer.
Explained point guard Kendall Marshall, who assisted Zeller on the pivotal play: “I had a wing guarding me, and I beat him; I was pretty excited, I thought I was going to go get a layup. But of course, as great as a defensive team as they are, a big man stepped up. Z was on the wing, and I thought if I threw it to him, he’d get a shot off.”
He did more than that. Zeller caught the ball near the right foul line elbow, shot-faked to get around Cavs forward Akil Mitchell, and drove to the basket.
“Mike Scott was there, so I just had to go up strong as possible in case he jumped with me,’’ Zeller said.
“He made a very tough move – to be able to pump-fake like that, take one dribble, and finish at the rim, with authority, as a 7-footer, that’s pretty impressive,’’ Marshall said.
And in a Williams-described “tough-ass game” where there weren’t a whole lot of impressive numbers, Zeller stood out. He made 7 of his 11 shots for 20 points, while the rest of his team was 10-for-40. (UNC’s 17 field goals were its fewest in a victory under Williams).
Scott finished 3-for-13 with a season-low 6 points. UNC’s Harrison Barnes, another ACC Player-of-the-Year candidate, was 3-for-15 with 7 points and 9 rebounds, and Marshall finished with 1 point and 6 assists.
Zeller also recorded 6 rebounds in 31 minutes. Not a bad outing for a player who didn't even know he was in the league POY discussion until last weekend.
“He made tough shots and he's making really good plays,'' Virginia guard Joe Harris (12 points) said, "and that's what really good players do."
That’s what ACC Players of the Year do.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.