The Tar Heels (26-4, 13-2 ACC) shot out to an early 16-4 lead, but let Maryland (16-13, 6-9 ACC) hang out by committing six turnovers and allowing nine offensive rebounds in the first half. The Terrapins cut their deficit to six points twice before UNC took a 36-25 advantage into halftime.
After seven more minutes of sluggishness to open the second stanza, North Carolina ramped up the intensity with a 26-3 run to build an insurmountable 74-43 lead.
Zeller's 20 made free throws are the second-most ever by a Tar Heel and represent only the eighth time in history that an ACC player has made 20 free throws in a game. His 23 free throw attempts are also a Smith Center record and are the third-most ever by a Tar Heel.
John Henson tied his career ACC scoring high with 19 points and pulled down nine rebounds. Reggie Bullock scored 12 points and Harrison Barnes added 10.
Freshman Nick Faust paced Maryland with 17 points and ACC leading scorer Terrell Stoglin contributed 16 points on 4-of-18 shooting.
North Carolina connected on just 39.4 percent of its field goal attempts (28-of-71), but held the Terrapins to 36.5 percent (23-of-63). UNC won the rebounding battle 42-41 (17-14 on the offensive glass).
UNC's win sets up a winner-take-all game at Duke on Saturday for the ACC regular season championship. It's the seventh time that the ACC crown has come down to the regular season finale between these rivals. The Tar Heels own a 4-2 record in those contests.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Fitting Farewell to Home
The Tar Heels were well aware of their size advantage against Maryland, which was forced to start freshman seven-footer Alex Len to put a big body in the paint. The Terrapins were unable to mask their inexperience and lack of size on the interior, however, as Zeller dominated the post with a methodical approach to scoring or getting to the foul line. The senior scored eight straight points from the charity stripe in a three-minute span early in the second half.
"We just don't do smart things all of the time," Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon told reporters during his postgame press conference. "You can't run behind Tyler Zeller when he's a foot from the basket. You've got to run in front of him. So you put yourself at such a disadvantage and our post guys did that all night."
Zeller likely secured ACC Player of the Year honors with his ACC career high in points and his second 30-point game of the season. The senior also posted eight rebounds, three blocks and two steals in his final game in Chapel Hill.
Zeller told reporters on Tuesday that he didn't expect to be emotional on Senior Night, and he held true to those comments, even when the Smith Center crowd offered a roaring ovation as he hugged his parents and delivered a rose to his mother.
Zeller walked off the court for the last time with 6:39 to play and his team leading 74-45. He left with a smile and raised a hand to the crowd, drawing a sustained cheer as the student section chanted his name. Zeller sat beside head coach Roy Williams during the seniors' video presentation following the game and spent most of his time looking down the bench, making eye contact and laughing with his teammates.
"It's a great feeling being able to have the crowd behind you like that all the way through my career," Zeller said. "It's been a great experience just to be able to play in front of them. It's something that I've enjoyed and I was very happy to be able to be a part of."
But there was plenty of emotion to go around for this Tar Heel senior class. Justin Watts and walk-ons Patrick Crouch, Stewart Cooper and David Dupont joined Zeller for the customary Senior Night starts.
The seniors were not the only ones affected by the magnitude of this final home game. Kendall Marshall responded to a question about Duke by stating his preference to focus on Senior Night. Wednesday marked his second time experiencing the final home game festivities, but the impact was obvious as the sophomore guard offered his thoughts.
"I was talking to [Patrick Crouch] in the locker room and he told me that [hitting his 3-pointer] was the best feeling he's ever felt in his life," Marshall said. "I just sat there and thought about that. Those are powerful words.
"You experience a lot in life. Not just in basketball, but with your family, throughout school, with your friends and to be able to say that playing basketball for the University of North Carolina and hitting a shot in front of his home crowd on Senior Night is the best feeling in his life, I think that's a tremendous feeling for him and I'm very happy for him."
In a career full of moments, the final home game only happens once. That realization will only grow larger as the weeks and months pass by.
A Broken Record
Marshall made it clear with his play in November that it was only a matter of when, not if, that UNC's single-season assist record would fall in 2012. The sophomore guard broke Ed Cota's school record (284) with an assist to Barnes with 17:59 to play on Wednesday.
"[Breaking the record] was obviously something that I wanted to do coming into the year," Marshall said. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't have my eye on it throughout the entire year.
"One thing that I've been thinking a lot about lately is that 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, but I don't want to stop here."
Marshall didn't stop with UNC's record, though. He also surpassed ACC greats such as Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson, Duke's Bobby Hurley and Maryland's Steve Blake in moving up five spots in the league's single-season assists list. The Dumfries, Va. product is now tied for third with Hurley at 289 assists and is just 15 assists away from the ACC record, held by Georgia Tech's Craig Neal (‘88).
"It would be tough to do it in one game, but the way I look at it, the more we keep winning, the easier it will be," Marshall said.
Marshall has conditioned reporters to look at his stat lines and accept outings with double-digit assists and minimal turnovers as routine, but it's possible that ACC head coaches can be added to that group as well.
"It wasn't his best game tonight – I haven't looked at his stats, but I could tell he was bored at times tonight, to be quite honest with you," Turgeon said before glancing down at the stat sheet. "[He was] 8-1, that's pretty good boredom."
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