But thanks to Tyler Zeller’s sensational performance and a gutsy overall effort, UNC was able to fend off its non-conference rival 75-73 to the delight of a raucous crowd. The Tar Heels were able to overcome their usual perimeter struggles thanks to Zeller’s 27 points and 11 rebounds, both career highs. He also swatted away five shots and drilled crucial free throws late in the game despite accumulating 30 grueling minutes of action.
His frontcourt mate, John Henson, also enjoyed another promising outing. Though his consecutive airballs at the free throw line drew a combination of groans and laughter, the sophomore accrued 13 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. He also was the primary reason UNC was able to stifle star Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones, who shot a brutal 3-for-17 from the floor.
Junior point guard Larry Drew silenced his critics for at least a few seconds, hitting two pressure free throws and generally playing inspired, vocal defense against another stud UK frosh, Brandon Knight. Though his second half was miserable, Carolina’s own touted freshman, Harrison Barnes, gave the team an early lift and finally demonstrated some unfettered emotion after a tip-dunk.
Roy Williams was careful after the game not to heap unqualified praise onto his team, but he also was clearly encouraged by the victory. He noted UNC’s ongoing shooting problems and tendency toward ball-handling mistakes, but he continues to insist that his club can become a good team — a hypothetical doubted by many prior to today — during the course of the season.
The next step for the Tar Heels will be to string together a series of wins. They travel to Evansville on Wednesday in a matchup that screams, “It’s a trap!”, as they have yet to prove they can execute amidst a hostile crowd.
To see the UNC/Kentucky box score, click here.