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December 8, 2010

Zeller leads Heels past Evansville, 76-49

EVANSVILLE, Ind. - It was only appropriate that Tyler Zeller lost a contact lens almost immediately after his homecoming game started.

The lost lens ended up being an apt metaphor for the junior's slow start to a game that ended with him scoring a team-high 18 points and grabbing eight rebounds as North Carolina beat Evansville 76-49 about 60 miles from Zeller's hometown.

"That was interesting trying to play with one eye for 45 seconds," Zeller said. "After that, I was able to calm down. It took me a bit to get into it, but once I got into it, I was fine."

A pair of double-digit scoring runs in the first half proved that the Tar Heels (6-3) weren't suffering any letdown following their two-point home win against Kentucky days earlier.

That was enough to bury the Purple Aces (3-4) under a deficit they couldn't dig their way out of. By the second half, the lead grew as big as 33 points, thanks in large part to Evansville shooting 3 for 20 from 3-point range and 31.7 percent overall.

"They just missed shots," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "It wasn't always our defense. I've never seen a team that shoots that well have that poor a shooting night on their home floor."

Carolina's first true road win of the season helped keep the momentum going from the big weekend victory against the Wildcats.

"One of the things I'm always talking about is after a win, how guys are going to respond," said UNC point guard Larry Drew II, who had four assists and no turnovers. "Confidence is definitely building from a team aspect."

Zeller, coming off a career-high 27 points and 11 rebounds in the win against Kentucky, seemed to be pressing a little bit at the start of the game after hearing himself get a big cheer - unlike the rest of the Tar Heels - during introductions.

The contingent of friends and family from Zeller's hometown of Washington, Ind., was so large neither he nor his mother could say exactly how many people there were.

The swarm of Washingtonians numbered at least 1,000 thanks to a pair of charter buses full of Zeller supporters. Some of them had even bought season tickets to the Purple Aces games just to be able to have a seat at this one.

With the influx of fans there to cheer on Zeller and the Heels, it was the first sellout for Evansville at Roberts Stadium since an exhibition game against cross-town rival Southern Indiana in 2004.

And it wasn't just fans Zeller was drawing.

Most of his early touches on offense were accompanied by a double team from the Purple Aces.

While Zeller struggled to get going early, the rest of the Tar Heels picked up the slack, opening a double-digit lead behind a 14-2 run midway through the first half.

"It was a big game for Tyler," Drew said. "I think there was a lot of emotion. They did a good job of doubling down on him, but it seemed like we couldn't miss."

Zeller eventually heated up, too, getting an easy layup, a pair of free throws and a putback to help the Heels to their second 10-0 spurt of the first half on the way to a 46-27 halftime lead.

That made for an early indication that Zeller's homecoming was going to be a good one, even though he picked up a pair of quick fouls at the start of the second half and had to go to the bench.

While the Tar Heels hit a lull to start the second half, missing eight of their first nine shots and going without a basket for more than five minutes to start the period, Evansville still never got closer than 18 points.

And when Zeller returned, the Heels tore off one last big run, this one13-0, to put the game away.

"He's a great player," Evansville coach Marty Simmons said of Zeller. "He's a cool cat. He goes about his business the right way. He gets to the line and does a good job running, knows how to post, how to get he angles and can use either hand in there. I think he's a terrific player."


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