Since Wednesday night's collapse, questions have flooded the media and fan base about this Carolina team's toughness and ability to win the big games. Arguably, before today, the Heels have lost the four toughest games on their schedule, and Tony Bennett's 2012 version of Virginia has been a far cry from the struggling Cavalier squads in recent years. Bennett's team entered the Smith Center ranked No. 19 in the country and sported a bonafide ACC Player of the Year candidate in senior Mike Scott.
From the start, it was Scott and the Cavaliers controlling the pace as both teams struggled shooting the basketball, making for a dull and inauspicious start. Scott scored his tenth point of the early going after two straight Kendall Marshall turnovers, and Virginia led 16-9 at the 12:51 mark.
Carolina cut the lead to two at 16-14 at the 9:10 mark on a free throw by James Michael McAdoo on the biggest play of the first half and perhaps the game - Mike Scott's second foul. Scott would leave the game at that point and not return for the half, leaving the Wahoos without their leader.
"It was huge," Zeller said of Scott's second foul. "He came out and had ten points very quickly so once he went to the bench, it's tough to come back from foul trouble. When you've been sitting down you have a tendency to not be aggressive so it was huge for us."
From there, Carolina turned inside to Zeller and McAdoo while Jontel Evans kept the visitors in the game with a variety of drives and passes to open teammates. Scott's absence was just what the Heels ordered as Carolina rode Zeller's scoring to a 35-32 halftime lead.
Virginia would manage a 40-37 lead early in the second frame, but Scott's third foul took the wind from the Cavalier sails. Despite the horrid outside shooting, Carolina's inside toughness and productive minutes from McAdoo, Justin Watts and Stilman White limited the effects of foul trouble and Carolina pulled away to win easily.
"Needless to say we feel a heck of a lot better now than we did three or four days ago," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said following the win. "Mike Scott is really a load and I was happy to have him in foul trouble... Other than that both teams would like to have shot better today, I thought rebounding was the biggest key."
Inside The Game
College basketball seasons offer many chances at redemption. And if there was one non-devastating thing to come from the Duke loss, it was that it happened in February, with plenty of make up games left.
For many, the Duke game marked a tipping point. With Virginia coming to town, lamenting a loss could lead to a two-game losing streak and that wasn't an option for this Carolina team if any preseason expectation was still to be realistic. For Zeller, it was an opportunity to cast off the last 2:33 minutes of Wednesday night and move on.
"I have a tendency to take losses hard, especially when you miss two free throws that could have won it," Zeller said of his mindset after Wednesday. "But it was something that I felt bad, all of my teammates felt bad so we were all trying to bounce back as fast as possible today.
"I struggled a little bit getting started, but once I got started, I think I played well. I think everyone played well."
A big game by Zeller and a big defensive night for the team should settle some of the uneasiness of the last four days.
Contrasting Styles = Ugly Games
Carolina runs, Virginia plugs along looking for just the right opportunity. The contrast makes for an interesting X and O game, but an unsightly product viewed from the stands or on television. But regardless of the style or type of game, Carolina's inside-out way of attacking opponents does not change. And when your starting backcourt is MIA most of the day, and perimeter shots aren't falling, winning the paint is the only chance to win the game.
Reggie Bullock's second half three was Carolina's second trey since halftime in College Park a week ago. 100 minutes of action - two three pointers; in today's game, a stunning stat for a team expected to be in the national title hunt. But if they don't go in, stop shooting them. Carolina did just that while Virginia, needing the three, managed only 3-of-16 from the outside.
When a team shoots 35 percent from the floor, including that aforementioned 1-of-10 from three, it must find another way to win. For Carolina, it was as simple as doing what Carolina Basketball has done for a long time -- dominate the boards on both ends (52-32 total, 23-8 offensive), win the turnover battle (8-12, including only two for the Heels in the second half), win the game.
Even without Dexter Strickland in his now familiar spot next to Leslie McDonald on the Tar Heel bench, there were far too many suits on the Carolina sideline. P.J. Hairston is the latest casualty and his status for upcoming games will be updated soon.
Perhaps playing Virginia and its preferred snail's pace was the best medicine for what ailed the Heels. But toss in a quick whistle from the officials and you have a mix-mash of lineups unseen on the floor this year.
"I think one of the biggest keys to the game was (Justin) Watts, Stilman and James Michael McAdoo gave us some things off the bench," Williams said. "It doesn't have to be scoring but of course James Michael with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes is big... Watts gave us an offensive rebound and did a good job defensively. I thought Stilman did a good job and gave us a little more of a breather for Kendall."
For the guys coming off the bench, making their minutes count is the only thing that matters.
"J. Watts played great defense and McAdoo came to play today," White said. "Most of the guys played their best game of the season. Coach [Jerod] Haase came to me before the game and said 'Be ready.' When I get in there I attack ,so I tried to push the ball when I got in there."
McAdoo noted of his improved play of late: "I think before the NC State game, I talked to (the coaches) and it gave me a better mindset and on the season on what I need to do. We looked at it as an opportunity and we wanted to take advantage of it. Coach can't fault our effort so we go out there and not let there be a drop off."
With health playing a major role from here on out, McAdoo and his bench mates will need to keep up the pace.