CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Tyler Zeller stood at midcourt with his fellow seniors and gave a wave to a roaring crowd after their final home game at North Carolina. It was a chance to say goodbye — and the moment the sixth-ranked Tar Heels could start thinking about Duke again.
Zeller had 30 points to help North Carolina beat Maryland 88-64 on Wednesday night, setting up a matchup with the fourth-ranked Blue Devils to determine the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship.
John Henson added 19 points for the Tar Heels (26-4, 13-2 ACC), who led all game to cap a 17-1 home record.
“Coach (Roy Williams) always told us it would go by like a flash, and it has,” Zeller said. “It’s been very, very quick.”
Zeller went just 5 for 12 from the field but finished with his best scoring performance in an ACC game thanks to the number of times he went to the free throw line. The 7-footer made 20 of 23 attempts, breaking Tyler Hansbrough’s Smith Center record for made free throws in a game and finishing one shy of matching the program’s and ACC’s all-time mark.
“He does have tremendous savvy,” Williams said. “He can turn to either shoulder and be able to score. And then he’s got a little of that Ichabod Crane clumsiness to him. He gets his arms and legs and head going in every direction. I suppose the defensive players have a lot of things that they can foul.”
Teammate Kendall Marshall set a record of his own, finishing with eight assists to set UNC’s season mark.
North Carolina led by 11 points at halftime and blew the game open with a 16-0 run midway through the second half, pushing the margin to 31.
Nick Faust had a career-high 17 points for the Terrapins (16-13, 6-9), while ACC leading scorer Terrell Stoglin finished with 16 on 4-for-18 shooting.
“I thought Carolina was great, especially Zeller,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We couldn’t guard him. All night he kept drawing fouls on us. He controlled the game at the foul line, I thought, and we didn’t have a post guy who really took on the challenge all night with him.”
North Carolina has won six straight games since the Blue Devils snapped the Tar Heels’ school-record 31-game home winning streak on Feb. 8. That game that ended with freshman Austin Rivers burying a 3-pointer at the buzzer, capping Duke’s comeback from 10 down in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
It was also one of the few dark moments for Zeller in a senior season that has made him a strong candidate for ACC player of the year. He missed two free throws in the final minute, accidentally tipped a rebound into the Duke basket and ended up defending Rivers after a switch before the final shot.
Duke and UNC entered the week tied atop the league standings.
The Blue Devils won at Wake Forest on Tuesday night to take care of their part, then the Tar Heels did the same 24 hours later. The teams meet Saturday night at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Marshall passed Ed Cota with his 285th assist this season when he found Harrison Barnes for a jumper in the lane with 17:59 to play.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my eye on (the record) throughout the entire year,” Marshall said. “One thing I’ve been
thinking about a lot lately is I don’t just want to be another player that played at Carolina. I don’t want to be just another
basketball player. I want to be legendary, I want to be remembered — that’s something that means a lot to me.
“I think this is a small way to be remembered. And I don’t want to stop here. I want to continue to be able to help my team out. Hopefully the more wins we get, that’s the easiest way to be remembered.”
The Tar Heels led 53-42 when Turgeon was whistled for a technical foul with 11:44 left. Zeller started the 16-0 with —
fittingly — a free throw, while Reggie Bullock knocked down a 3-pointer and a transition layup during the run. By the time Zeller hit two more free throws at the 7:37 mark, UNC’s lead had ballooned to 69-42.
“I’ve never seen a big man shoot that many free throws in my life,” Maryland’s James Padgett said.
Zeller finished two points shy of matching his career-high and left the game to a standing ovation with 6:39 left, greeting
Williams with a handshake and a hug at the sideline.
Williams maintained the program’s long-running “Senior Night” tradition by starting senior reserves Justin Watts, David Dupont, Stewart Cooper and Patrick Crouch alongside Zeller. The Tar Heels had a different look for this game with Nike “platinum” line uniforms that are gray with Carolina blue trim.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)