CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Tyler Zeller scored a career-high 27 points and hit the go-ahead free throws with 47 seconds left, helping North Carolina edge No. 10 Kentucky 75-73 on Saturday.
Zeller scored 12 of the final 16 points for the Tar Heels (5-3), who earned a needed victory against a big-name opponent after struggling the first month of the season.
John Henson added 13 points and 12 rebounds, giving North Carolina its sixth win in the past seven games against the Wildcats (5-2).
Freshman Doron Lamb had a season-high 24 points for Kentucky, though he missed a desperation running heave for the win a few steps within halfcourt as time expired.
Zeller ended up as the steady hand for the Tar Heels in a game that featured five lead changes in the final 3 minutes. Zeller hit all of his six free throws in the final 90 seconds, while Larry Drew II came up with a pair of critical free throws with 20.9 seconds left.
Zeller, a 7-foot junior, also had 11 rebounds and five blocks while finishing 11 for 12 at the line. He was a big part of the Tar Heels' dominance in the paint, where they outscored the Wildcats 34-14 and hounded Terrence Jones into a miserable game.
Jones came in leading Kentucky at nearly 21 points and 10 rebounds per game, but the 6-8 freshman struggled with the long-armed Henson shadowing him most of the afternoon. Jones finished with nine points and six rebounds on 3-for-17 shooting – including 0 for 7 after halftime – before fouling out with 3:04 left.
It came down to a frantic final sequence, with neither team having a timeout left and the Tar Heels protecting a 74-73 lead with 5.6 seconds remaining.
Tar Heels sophomore Dexter Strickland made the first free throw but missed the second, and Darius Miller grabbed the rebound in traffic. He fired an outlet pass to reserve Jarrod Polson, who quickly sent the ball to Lamb for the final heave that missed everything and set off a loud roar from a relieved home crowd.
Neither team shot the ball well after halftime, but the Tar Heels repeatedly got to the foul line to offset their shooting troubles. In fact, North Carolina shot 41 percent for the game and 1 for 11 from 3-point range, but went 26 for 37 at the line compared to 16 of 21 for Kentucky.
Kentucky shot just 9 for 30 (30 percent) in the second half.
The Wildcats led 57-51 midway through the second half, the biggest lead for either team after the break, but the Tar Heels climbed back to set up the back-and-forth final minutes.
Zeller hit two free throws for a 68-67 lead with 1:21 lead only to see Josh Harrelson answer with a stickback over Harrison Barnes with 52.8 seconds.
Harrelson fouled Zeller while reaching over his shoulder from behind to deny an entry pass moments later, and Zeller calmly knocked down the go-ahead free throws to make it 70-69. Drew added two more to make it a three-point margin and keep the Wildcats playing from behind.
Brandon Knight scored 15 points for Kentucky, one of four Wildcats to foul out.