Zellers steady interior scoring bailed out the Heels

ESPN — Virginia features one of the ACC’s more formidable teams, but fans understandably struggle to muster excitement when the Cavaliers line up opposite their beloved squad.

UVa used its stifling tempo and tough defense to limit possessions against North Carolina on Saturday afternoon — Virginia ranks No. 337 out of 345 Division I teams in terms of pace — but the Tar Heels managed to eke out a 54-51 slog in Charlottesville. Any conference road victory must be considered significant, and UNC prevailed despite playing far more slowly than its ordinary tempo and shooting a horrible 33 percent from the field.

If you’re inclined to believe that the Duke game was a fluke loss, UVa probably should be considered a fluke win. The Cavaliers ran their offense successfully late and simply missed wide open jump shots, and Carolina missed free throws and committed potentially game-changing turnovers yet survived the experience.

Many fans will fall prey to the notion that the Heels summoned the heart and toughness to climb the mountain, but frankly Carolina mostly got lucky. UNC played winning basketball at Kentucky and lost to a slightly superior team, mostly played winning hoops against Duke yet lost, and today they played losing basketball but managed to notch a victory.

Tyler Zeller did compile efficient numbers. He shot 7-for-11 to finish with 20 points and six rebounds. John Henson contributed 15 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.

But Harrison Barnes never established a rhythm, hitting just 3-for-15 from the field and finishing with seven points. And after his career game at N.C. State, Kendall Marshall missed all six of his shooting attempts and finished with one point in 37 minutes.

In fairness, the Heels did make timely plays on defense. Carolina limited Virginia to just 31 percent shooting in the second half and, reversing a disappointing effort against the Wolfpack, crushed the Wahoos on the class 48-29.

Those rebounds helped enable Carolina to earn 23 free throw attempts, and on this day the Heels converted at a strong 78 percent. By contrast, Virginia attempted only six total free throws. Most fans scoff at officiating conspiracies — and for good reason — but just imagine the howls if this had been a Duke game and the Devils had enjoyed such a disparate foul shooting advantage.

But let’s not go overboard with the critique. Virginia poses a stiff challenge at home, and Carolina now has won six consecutive ACC road games. The Tar Heels improved to 25-4 overall and 12-2 in the ACC, so another 30-win season appears likely.

UNC will play its final home game of the season versus Maryland on Wednesday, then proceed to Durham next Saturday in a showdown against Duke that may determine the regular season conference champion. Click here to view the UNC/UVa box score.