North Carolina (25-4, 12-2 ACC) jumped out to a 17-8 lead behind 10 points by Zeller, but Virginia (21-7, 8-6 ACC) bounced back with a 13-4 spurt and eventually took a 30-26 advantage into halftime.
The Cavaliers increased their working margin to 37-31 before the Tar Heels delivered their own 13-4 run to retake the lead at 44-41. Virginia reclaimed the lead for 15 seconds on a Joe Harris lay-up with 5:57 to play, but John Henson's dunk at the 5:42 mark gave UNC a lead that it would not relinquish.
Virginia's Mike Scott missed an open 3-pointer with 48 seconds remaining and his team trailing by one. The Tar Heels worked the shot clock down on the ensuing possession, and although the play called for Zeller to be a screener, he ended up with the ball and scored the game's final points with his dunk.
Zeller led all scorers with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting. John Henson posted his 14th double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Jontel Evans paced the Cavaliers with 13 points. Joe Harris added 12 points, five rebounds and three blocks, while Sammy Zeglinski scored 11 points.
ACC Player of the Year candidate Mike Scott was held to a season-low six points on 3-of-13 shooting in 22 minutes of action.
The Tar Heels shot 33.3 percent from the floor (17-51), slightly below Virginia's 35.0 percent effort (21-of-60).
UNC's 17 made field goals are the fewest in a win during the Roy Williams era. The previous low was 19 against Wisconsin earlier this year.
INSIDE THE GAME
Zeller On, Everyone Else Off… Again
In the first meeting between these programs two weeks ago, Zeller led UNC with 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting. The 18-point margin of victory helped disguise the senior's teammates shooting woes, however, as they combined for a 15-of-52 effort, including a 1-of-10 mark from 3-point territory.
That trend carried over into the second meeting on Saturday. While Zeller was netting 7-of-11 field goal attempts, his teammates put together a 10-of-40 shooting performance.
In the two games against Virginia, Tar Heels not named Zeller combined for a 27.2 field goal percentage (25-of-92). The statistic from long range is even worse – 12.5 percent (3-of-24).
Barnes attempted to explain what made the Cavaliers so effective defensively during his postgame interview in the UNC locker room.
"I think it's just their tempo," Barnes said. "They're going to definitely make you work on defense by moving the ball around and working their offense, and then when they're on defense, they just put a lot of pressure on the wings. They make you take bad shots – I had plenty of those tonight – and they do a good job."
Zeller, on the other hand, scored UNC's first 10 points but only attempted four shots after halftime.
"In the beginning, I had a lot of easy shots," Zeller said. "Kendall did a great job with a couple of pitch-aheads. I was able to get run-outs [and] I got fouled, so it's something where I was just trying to take good shots."
Zeller, of course, scored his biggest basket with 13.3 seconds remaining and North Carolina clinging to a one-point lead.
Owning the Glass
Kendall Marshall told reporters following the game that Virginia's slow tempo placed a greater emphasis on each possession, but it's more than pace that forces the issue. Entering Saturday's game, the Cavaliers ranked third nationally in defensive rebounding percentage (75.2) and were only allowing 7.0 second chance points per game.
While the Tar Heels may have struggled offensively, they matched the Hoos on the defensive end and beat them at their own game on the boards.
UNC won the rebounding battle, 48-29, including a 12-5 edge on the offensive glass. North Carolina also outscored Virginia, 9-4, in second chance points.
Virginia's five offensive rebounds – despite missing 39 field goal attempts – allowed UNC to post an 87.8 defensive rebounding percentage, more than 20 percentage points higher than the Cavaliers (66.7).
"We were, needless to say, much better defensively and much better on the backboards than we were on the offensive end," Williams said.
North Carolina's success on the glass on Saturday shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, UNC leads the country in rebounding margin (11.5), but what makes that statistic stand out is that UNC lost the rebounding battle in five of its first 10 games this season. The Tar Heels have since held the edge in 18 of their last 19 games (FSU).
"I think we thought rebounds were just going to come to us and that wasn't the case, especially with Michigan State being so physical down there," Henson said in explaining the shift in rebounding mentality since mid-December. "So we made it an emphasis as a team, James [Michael McAdoo], ‘Z' and me getting down there to rebound, and ‘H' as well, and that's what we're doing."
UNC currently leads the ACC in league play in offensive rebounds with 15.9 per game.
Virginia's First Half Charge
Despite three early turnovers, North Carolina was effective in quieting the John Paul Jones Arena crowd with an opening 17-8 run fueled by a 6-of-12 shooting display. Add in Mike Scott's second foul with 8:39 remaining before halftime and it looked as though UNC was in position to build an imposing double-digit lead.
But Virginia increased its defensive pressure and held the Tar Heels to nine points on 2-of-13 shooting and three turnovers over the final 11:12 of the first half. The Cavaliers converted eight of their 17 field goal attempts during that same stretch.
"We just made mistakes and they capitalized on them," Barnes said. "A turnover here, a travel here and then all of a sudden two threes and that deficit is cut down from [nine]. They definitely just continued to attack."
Virginia closed the first half on a 22-9 run.
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