North Carolina opened its tournament campaign with its top defensive player and rebounder on the bench in a suit and tie.
But with John Henson on the bench nursing a sprained wrist, senior center Tyler Zeller had no problem picking up the slack for the Tar Heels in front of a partisan crowd in Greensboro, N.C.
The top-seeded Tar Heels never trailed and advanced to face No. 8 Creighton in a round-of-32 matchup Sunday.
Zeller was the lone consistent source of offense for North Carolina in the opening half, putting up 15 of his game-high 17 points while his teammates struggled to find their rhythm. On the defensive end, he did his best to fill the shot-blocking void left by Henson while cleaning up on the glass. Henson finished with 15 rebounds and four blocks.
The Tar Heels struggled through a sluggish first half but pulled away midway through the second by capitalizing on Vermont turnovers and turning them into transition baskets. Harrison Barnes had 14 points, six rebounds, Kendall Marshall scored 11 points and dished out nine assists and freshman James Michael McAdoo — starting in Henson’s place — stepped up with a career-high 17 points.
North Carolina’s aggressiveness also led to a massive disparity at the free throw line where the Tar Heels had a 24-8 advantage in attempts.
Senior forward Matt Glass led the Catamounts with 11 points and Sandro Carissimo added 10 as Vermont hung around in a low-scoring first half and trailed by only 12 at the break. But 19 turnovers and ice cold shooting from beyond the arc (3 of 17) prevented the Catamounts from seriously threatening the five-time tournament champions.
Sunday’s round-of-32 matchup will be a high school reunion of sorts for Barnes and Creighton’s Doug McDermott who co-starred on back-to-back state championship teams for Ames High School in Iowa. McDermott, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, scored 16 points and had 10 rebounds to help the Bluejays rally late to beat Alabama.
Box score: North Carolina 77, Vermont 58
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