CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Tyler Zeller started fast and finished strong.
"It was great," Zeller said of the play in which he got the ball near the right elbow of the free throw line, dribbled twice and slammed it in. "Once I shot faked, Mike Scott was standing there, but he was kind of a little out of position to challenge it, and I knew I just had to go up and finish strong."
The dunk boosted North Carolina's lead to three points, and the Tar Heels survived an open look from the left corner for Sammy Zeglinski, and a 35-footer at the buzzer from Jontel Evans.
John Henson added 15 points, including 11 in the second half, and 11 rebounds as the Tar Heels (25-4, 12-2) kept pace with No. 5 Duke for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Blue Devils beat Virginia Tech 70-65 in overtime Saturday and will host North Carolina on March 3.
They would love to have more of the same from Zeller, who was 7 for 11 from the field on an afternoon when the rest of the Tar Heels were 10 for 40, including 3 for 15 by Harrison Barnes.
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"Z carried us a great deal of the time, to say the least," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
And when it wasn't Zeller, Henson hurt the Cavaliers. He scored 11 of their 16 points over a stretch of about 8 minutes in the second half when the Tar Heels reclaimed the lead. And when the Cavaliers went back ahead with 5:59 to go, a dunk by Henson put North Carolina ahead to stay.
He said the absence of Scott, who played just 22 minutes because of foul trouble, was big for the Tar Heels.
"It's hard to defend him and you're not going to defend him very well because he's such a great offensive player, so the best thing you can do is get him off the court with foul trouble, and that's what our goal was," he said.
Evans had 13 points and Joe Harris added 12 for Virginia (21-7, 8-6), while Scott missed 10 of 13 shots, mostly from outside. The Cavaliers' leading scorer and ACC player of the year candidate finished with just six points, more than 11 below his average.
"Everything goes through him," Zeglinski said. "I thought he got some unlucky calls on him that sidelined him. We just kept fighting ... and we had a chance at the end. That's all we can ask for."
The game was close throughout the second half, with Virginia leading by as many as six points and the Tar Heels taking a 42-41 lead on five consecutive points by P.J. Hairston.
The Cavaliers got the lead back once, at 49-48 with 5:59 to play, but Henson scored on a dunk and Zeller followed a Virginia miss by muscling one in with 4:11 to play, giving North Carolina a 52-49 lead.
Evans' steal and layup with 3:10 to play pulled Virginia within 52-51, and neither team scored again until Zeller's dunk in the final seconds.
The victory was the fifth straight for the Tar Heels and ended Virginia's two-game winning streak.
Virginia led 37-31 after Scott's baseline jumper with 17 minutes to play, but Scott picked up his third foul less than a minute later and went to the bench. The Cavaliers didn't score for more than 4 minutes, but retained the lead as the Tar Heels managed just four free throws.
North Carolina went more than 6 minutes without a field goal, but when Hairston ended that drought with a putback and followed on the next possession with a 3-pointer, they had their first lead of the half at 42-41. The teams traded baskets until Evans scored on a drive and Harris followed with a tip-in for the Cavaliers, giving them a 49-48 lead with 5:59 remaining and firing up a sellout crowd.
But the Cavaliers managed only one more basket the rest of the way.
The Cavaliers led 30-26 at halftime, and got there in a most unusual way -- with Scott on the bench with two fouls.
Virginia finished the half on a 20-8 run over the last 8 minutes after Scott went to the bench. It helped that Zeller, who had 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting, also missed most of that stretch after picking up his second foul. The rest of the Tar Heels were just 3 for 18 from the field.
Zeglinski had eight points in the burst, including a 26-footer at the halftime buzzer.