Shot had lasting impact on Rivers, Zeller

Since the early February loss to Duke, Tyler Zeller and the Tar Heels have won six in a row. Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty Images

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Every time a game winds down to the three-minute mark, Tyler Zeller still thinks about it: the missed foul shots, the accidental tip-in, the failure to take another step forward to defend Duke guard Austin Rivers' game-winning 3-pointer.

"I know I could have played that play better," Zeller, North Carolina’s senior 7-footer, said recently. "I know I could have made those two free throws. Everybody tells me that I didn’t lose the game, but I always say I could have won it."

Instead, that notch went to Rivers -- with ramifications for both players, both teams.

In the three weeks since the Blue Devils’ stunning 85-84 come-from-behind victory, neither team has lost. Each squad has struggled at times: Duke defensively, UNC with making shots. But the third-ranked Blue Devils seem to have finally jelled, accepting that their go-to guy is Rivers. The No. 6 Tar Heels have refocused, relying on Zeller more than ever to lead.

As a result, Saturday’s rematch at Cameron Indoor Stadium will determine who wins the ACC regular-season title -- and will impact whether either team earns a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"The stakes are high," Rivers said. "They’re going to be ready to play because of what happened last time. But so are we."

It could have turned out so differently for both players.

After Rivers hit “The Shot” over Zeller from the right side of the arc, capping a season-high 29-point night (the most a freshman has ever scored in the rivalry game), he was deluged by attention and kudos. He had posted big games before -- 20 points in a win over Michigan, 22 in a loss to Ohio State. But he had also struggled. So much so during a stretch early in the ACC season that he found himself coming off the bench, rather than starting, Jan. 19 against Wake Forest.

So the day after the UNC win, while replays of his 3-pointer were still dominating the airwaves and websites, coach Mike Krzyzewski met with Rivers to remind the rookie not to get too caught up in one memory.

"When a youngster hits a shot like that -- not many people hit a shot like that -- it can hurt him," Krzyzewski said. "… You want to stay in that moment, it’s such a high … and it’s not a bad moment to stay in. But it takes away the possibility of other moments."

Rivers said he recognized that and was determined not to settle for that game and that moment being his only highlight.

"Maybe some players, they would think hitting a shot like that, things are great now, they don’t have to do anything [else]," said Rivers, a 6-4 guard from Winter Park, Fla. "I viewed that as an opportunity, personally, to keep it going."

And he did. Since the win over UNC, Rivers has averaged 16 points a game. But perhaps more importantly, he has found acceptance and a better connection with his team.

Freshmen, Krzyzewski noted, often struggle to find a balance between solidifying an individual role and developing relationships with team veterans. That was the case for Rivers, who worked hard in practice and was coached hard by Krzyzewski and his assistants -- but like all rookies, he had something to prove.

"You don't want to step on anybody's toes," Rivers said. "At the same time, you have to establish yourself. You don't want to just come in and get pushed around. My whole thing was, 'I'm just going to come in, I'm going to be aggressive.' My father [NBA coach Doc Rivers] always told me, 'Don't let anybody ever change your game. Don't let anybody take away from what's gotten you here.'"

His shot, his performance against UNC showed why.

"Prior to that, I had had games this season where I played well, the team played well, and it felt good," Rivers said. "After that game, I felt really good, I thought, 'I like the way this feels; I like doing what I can to help this team win.' And Coach told me to use that to keep it going. That’s what I’ve tried to keep doing since that game; to go out there and do everything I can. And I think I have."

Zeller, by contrast, didn’t need any sort of confidence boost entering that game.

Afterward -- well, that was another thing.

The studious forward from Washington, Ind., had been on a roll, recording five double-doubles in his previous seven outings. And against the Blue Devils, he had scored 21 of his 23 points entering that final 2:38 stretch, when he had such a big part in Duke’s 10-point rally.

The accidental tip-in of Ryan Kelly's 3-point attempt? There wasn’t much he could do about that, considering the push he got in the lane from a Duke player on his way up to try to grab the ball. But going 2-for-4 from the free throw line stung, especially when he was averaging about 80 percent on foul shots. And opting, on a switch, to defend Rivers' possible game-tying drive rather than step (and reach) up to defend a game-winning 3? That still stings.

"He took it as hard as maybe any player I’ve had take a loss in a regular season," UNC coach Roy Williams said.

Zeller did go into a shell for a couple of days, failing to fall asleep until 5 the next morning, sitting in the back of class the next day so he could avoid fellow students and not turning on the TV until two days after the game because he knew he wouldn’t hear much good about himself. His coaches called him, his teammates checked on him.

When the team returned to practice that Friday, though, he was more serious, more focused, determined that a stretch like that would never happen again.

"That [Duke] game is something I use as motivation, something I used to keep going," he said.

Indeed, he followed that loss with a 25-point, nine-rebound performance against Virginia and has averaged 18.6 points during UNC’s six-game winning streak. But it’s the way he’s scored and rebounded and played defense that’s been more important -- as if that final Duke stretch didn’t negatively impact him, as if it didn’t happen. His teammates noticed, and followed suit.

"I think they really saw how hurt he was, and they really saw an increased level of focus and seriousness, and I think that’s one of the ways that he leads them," Williams said. "You’ve got to take that like he’s a teacher, and I think he did teach them something."

First and foremost, that every play, ever mistake, matters -- and can’t be taken for granted.

"We could have made free throw throws, boxed out … if I wouldn’t gotten a charge, if Kendall [Marshall] would have entered it in on the post feed, or maybe made Austin drive on that last play -- anything like that," UNC forward Harrison Barnes said. "You look at those things, and you take that into the next game … and you do a better job of managing that."

And the Tar Heels have. Over the past few weeks, Marshall said, they’ve been more determined to push their leads rather than settle, focus rather than relax. Wednesday, for instance, it was Zeller who scored the first 10 points (eight on free throws) during a 31-10 run that put that game out of reach for Maryland.

"He bounced back and really has played some of his best basketball since [the Duke game]," Williams said. "I’m hopeful that if the clock’s winding down Saturday, he’s dribbling the ball outside the 3[-point line], and some little guard’s guarding him, and I hope he makes the shot and we win the game."

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.