The Tar Heels (6-3) wasted little time in asserting control over an Evansville club picked 10th in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, building an early 17-6 lead and increasing that margin to 46-24 just before halftime with a pair of 10-0 runs.
The Purple Aces (3-4) cut that deficit to 17 points 67 seconds into the second half, but would get no closer. UNC increased its lead to 33 points at 72-39 with 4:48 remaining.
Justin Knox complemented Zeller's efforts in the post with 13 points and five rebounds, while Harrison Barnes added nine points on 3-of-11 shooting and seven rebounds. Ryan Colt led Evansville with nine points and Clint Hopf and Pieter van Tongeren both scored eight points as the Purple Aces failed to put anyone in double digits.
North Carolina shot 42.6 percent (23-of-54) from the floor, while holding Evansville to 31.7 percent shooting (19-of-60, 3-of-20 on 3-pointers). The Tar Heels outrebounded their opponent, 42-35, and won the turnover battle, 12-23.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Homecoming for ‘Z'
Evansville was able to claim a sellout on Wednesday for the first time in six years due to a large contingent of North Carolina fans on hand for Zeller's return to his home state of Indiana. Roy Williams has made a habit of trying to schedule games outside of the ACC region near his players' hometowns, and the Purple Aces provided a means to an end – Zeller's hometown of Washington, Ind., is 60 miles north of Evansville.
In preparation for the game, a local radio station handed out roughly 600 tickets to the game and another 400 found its way to friends and family.
Zeller didn't match his career performance from last Saturday against No. 10 Kentucky – 27 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks – but North Carolina didn't need him to. An average showing by the seven-foot junior still led the Tar Heels with 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting (8-of-10 FTs) and eight rebounds.
As expected, the 12,000-plus fans in attendance that included so many people close to Zeller brought out some butterflies as tip-off approached.
"It's kind of a different atmosphere when you're coming back and you know so many people as far as fans, so it took me a little bit to get into it, but after I got into it, I was fine," Zeller said.
Shooting Woes from Deep
North Carolina turned heads in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off by drilling 12 of its 17 3-point shots against Hofstra, but that performance has proven to be an outlier in what has been a disturbing trend of poor perimeter shooting this season.
The Tar Heels connected on just four of their 18 3-pointers against Evansville, dropping their season average to 31.6 percent (38-of-120). Remove the Hofstra explosion from the equation and that percentage drops to 25.2 (26-of-103).
With an 0-for-5 display against the Purple Aces, Barnes is now shooting 27.2 percent from 3-point territory (9-of-33) on the season. UNC's starting trio on the perimeter – Barnes, Drew and Strickland – is collectively shooting 25.9 percent (14-of-54) from deep through nine games.
"You try to keeping working," Barnes said. "Shots aren't always going to fall, but at this point in time, you've just got to keep working."
His head coach echoed those sentiments, saying, "We've got to get a little more confidence in our shooting and shoot the ball in the basket."
Reggie Bullock entered the game as the only Tar Heel connecting on better than a third of his 3-point shots (9-of-21), and the freshman wing knocked two of his five attempts.
Defense Steadily Improving
As North Carolina continues to struggle shooting the ball, its defense has now succeeded in shutting down its opponents' top-two scorers for the second straight game.
Against Kentucky on Saturday, the Tar Heels held freshmen phenoms Terrance Jones and Brandon Knight to a combined 24 points on 8-of-29 shooting. UNC employed a similar approach against Evansville – size and a wave of bodies.
Sophomore guard Colt Ryan entered the contest averaging 16.8 points and knocking down a ridiculous 56 percent of his 3-point attempts (18-of-32), while junior forward Kenneth Harris played Robin in contributing 13.2 points per contest.
But John Henson's length and Justin Knox's size rendered the 6-foot-6, 185-pound Harris a sapling amongst trees, managing just three points on 1-of-9 shooting. His lone bucket came on a second-half 3-pointer.
And as Williams has done in defending various guards this season, the eighth-year UNC head coach deployed a number of defenders against Ryan in limiting the 2010 Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year to nine points on 2-of-14 shooting, including a 1-of-8 mark from 3-point land.
Barnes pointed to poor defense in the losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Illinois as motivation for UNC on that end of the court.
"Locking down on defense and really focusing on that has really helped us," Barnes said.
The Tar Heels forced 23 turnovers and netted 17 points off those miscues, outscoring Evansville by 12 points on points off turnovers.
"We're starting to learn that we can start our offense from our defense," Larry Drew said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a halfcourt game. We can score off turnovers, fast breaks and just by getting stops."