Zeller starts big, then stumbles
This story cracked like a whip, and for Zeller, it seared.
In one minute, the 7-footer went from playing possibly the best game of his career to absolute goat. And frankly, it’ll be that last minute that defines this game.
It started when Zeller went to the charity stripe with an 82-80 lead and 44 seconds remaining. The 79 percent free throw shooter hit 1-of-2. Then on the next play, Zeller accidentally tipped Ryan Kelly’s short 3-pointer into Duke’s basket. Two points, 83-82.Zeller was fouled with 14 seconds remaining. Again, the 79 percent free throw shooter hit 1-of-2. And then Duke guard Austin Rivers hit his game-winning 3-pointer over Zeller from well-beyond the arc. Zeller would do it differently if he could.
“I didn’t want to foul him and put him on the free throw line, but you can’t give up a 3-pointer when you’re up two,” Zeller said.
Thirty-nine minutes for one. Not necessarily a fair trade. And in the first 39 minutes of No. 5 North Carolina’s 85-84 loss to No. 10 Duke, Zeller was unstoppable.
“I thought Zeller and John were really big,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I just thought we made some mistakes at the end, and that’s the bottom line.”
It’s the most memorable line, even if Zeller had a great stat line.
He entered the game averaging 15.3 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. By halftime he had 19 and 8.
It wasn’t long ago that Zeller carried around a soft label, and he certainly didn’t start shedding the soft label with Duke. Zeller has five double-doubles in his last seven games and he’s 17.4 points and 11.4 rebounds a game in that stretch.
No, it didn’t start with Duke. But it may have peaked against Duke.
“Zeller was unbelievable in the first half,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I’m unbelievably impressed with Tyler Zeller. He’s just a great, great player.”
Call it ironic that UNC lost on a 3-pointer, because Duke was killing the Tar Heels with it in the first half. Zeller was everything UNC needed in a first half that UNC only led for the final 44 seconds. Without him there may never have been a first-half Tar Heel lead.
After Duke broke out to an early lead, all UNC could do was keep up. The Blue Devils shot 45 percent in the first half and made seven 3-pointers. Zeller made 7 of his 14 shots and hit 5-of-7 from the charity stripe. He grabbed four offensive rebounds. Zeller was relentless.
But his value in that half can’t be measured statistically. UNC’s leading scorer Harrison Barnes looked slow and hobbled in the first half, and UNC wasn’t getting many looks from long range.
Zeller was the offense. UNC seemed to acknowledge that, allowing the big man to take nearly half the team’s first-half shots. Duke knew it, but it couldn’t stop it.
Zeller was in line to topple his career-high 32 points last season after that half, but he didn’t put up the same numbers after halftime.
He got most of the attention in the second half, so the Tar Heels found other options. Harrison Barnes scored 19 points in the second half after shooting 0-for-4 in the first, but Zeller remained active.
On one possession that ended with a Kendall Marshall layup, Zeller tipped out two rebounds to John Henson to keep it alive.
“I just tried to get to the boards as much as possible and tried to create problems for them defensively,” Zeller said.
He did that, except for one play.
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