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March 11, 2011

Zeller beats buzzer to give Heels comeback win

GREENSBORO, N.C. - North Carolina didn't look postseason-ready for most of its ACC Tournament quarterfinal matchup with Miami.

But by the end, the Tar Heels had staged a comeback March memories are made of.

Sixth-ranked Carolina overcame a 19-point second-half deficit to beat the Hurricanes 61-59 on a layup from Tyler Zeller as time expired.

"I've had some close wins and some great comebacks," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "This is right up there. I don't know if I've ever had one like this in a tournament game."

The Hurricanes (19-14), who overcame a 10-point deficit in the final minute against Virginia a day earlier, had the ball with the game tied but turned it over on a bad pass with 18.6 seconds remaining.

After taking the two fouls Miami had to give, Carolina (25-6) put the ball in the hands of its play-making freshman point guard Kendall Marshall.

Williams' instructions were for Marshall to drive to the basket or give the ball back to inbounder Harrison Barnes.

Miami coach Frank Haith said he told his team to focus on Barnes, who beat the Canes in Miami with a 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds to go.

But Marshall chose to take the ball into the lane, where he drew the defense and dished to Zeller, who scored the Tar Heels' final four field goals.

"We just wanted to get something going to the basket, make sure that we got the last shot," said Marshall, who had 10 assists. "Z's man came over to help, and I found him under the basket."

Zeller clearly got off the shot in time, with the officials emphatically indicating a basket as the horn sounded.

"People always make fun of me for not dunking, but it paid off for me on that possession," Zeller said.

Midway through the second half, the Hurricanes had a 53-34 lead and Carolina looked like it would be headed home early.

What it didn't look like was a team whose bandwagon started straining under heaps of extra weight after the win against Duke to close the regular season.

"We were as bad as you could possibly be for the first 35 minutes," Williams said.

Williams let his team know just how awful he thought it was playing by inserting "Blue Steel" - Carolina's walk-ons - into the game with 12 minutes to go in the first half.

With the Tar Heels on the way to what would end up being 15 first-half turnovers and 30-percent shooting, Williams let loose on his starters while the walk-ons played.

"I used my allotment of bad words for the month today," he said.

The regulars shaped up a bit when they returned but were still lucky to be down just 31-22 at the half, even if it was the second-worst scoring half of the season for the Tar Heels.

In the first half, Carolina had more than twice as many turnovers as field goals (seven) and only seven more points than turnovers. Were it not for 10 first-half points from Barnes, who finished with a team-high 18, Carolina would have been in even bigger offensive trouble.

Things were so bad that by the time started going in the basket for the rest of the Tar Heels, it looked like it was already too late.

But while Miami missed, the Carolina buckets piled up.

Leslie McDonald, who scored 11 off the bench, put in a three with seven minutes to go. Then Marshall hit a pair of threes. Then there was one from Barnes.

Suddenly the Heels had a 19-3 run and were within four points with five minutes to go.

That's when they went inside to Zeller, who finished off the comeback as the heavily pro-Carolina crowd roared.

The Tar Heels got their first and only lead when it counted most.

For a team short on postseason experience, the thrill of this type of victory was a big boost, especially considering the alternative.

"It's definitely different," Marshall said. "You're not promised tomorrow now."


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