Inside Zakai Zeigler's starring performance in Tennessee basketball's win vs. North Carolina
A throng of a dozen family members and friends waited for Zeigler in the first few rows of the stands. He posed for pictures on the court and next to it with individuals, groups of people and a few with Kennedy Chandler.
The Vols freshman owned the moment, just as he owned the day.
“He’s a very confident player,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said. “We’ve always had confidence from the time he got on campus. Within a week, the strides he made early, we knew we could count on him.”
Zeigler proved it on a major early season stage three hours from his hometown of Wyandanch, New York.
The 5-foot-9 freshman was the brightest star in a star-studded 89-72 win for No. 17 Tennessee (3-1) against No. 20 North Carolina (3-2) to cap UT’s two games in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. He crushed the Tar Heels with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting. He was 3-for-5 on 3-pointers, had five assists and no turnovers.
“He can really shoot it,” senior forward John Fulkerson said. “I expect that from him every time he gets on the court. He might have messed up because he set a really high standard for himself. We will see how he lives up to it. I will make sure to tell him that, too.”
Zeigler checked in with 14:02 to play in the first half and made himself essentially indispensable for the Vols. He asserted himself defensively as a pest on UNC’s high-scoring backcourt. He pressed the ball in transition, scoring back-to-back fastbreak layups.
He spearheaded a multi-point guard attack that Barnes unleashed repeatedly. He played alongside Chandler in bunches. The duo also lined up with Santiago Vescovi in a three-headed attack that wrecked the Tar Heels.
It was the most extensive usage of the lineup through four games, a reality sparked by Zeigler’s play.
“He’s earned his right onto the court,” Barnes said. “He has. I think he’s a smart player. I think he’s adjusting to college basketball. … I’m always kidding with him, (saying) he can’t do this, he can’t do that. And he looks at me and says, 'We’ll see.'
“But we’ve never had a lack of confidence in him.”
Zeigler had 14 points in four games entering Sunday. He had 14 in the second half when he got rolling from 3-point range and brought former Vol forward Grant Williams to his feet multiple times courtside.
Zeigler was especially lethal against UNC sophomore guard RJ Davis, who also is from the New York City area. Davis was a highly regarded recruit from White Plains, while Zeigler was a relative unknown when he committed to Tennessee in August.
He hit a pair of 3-pointers over Davis, then had his highlight at Davis’ expense when he crossed Davis at the 3-point line and drove for a three-point play.
“People were calling me, saying, ‘You’ve got to do this, he’s going to do that,’” Zeigler said. “But at the end of the day, I just wanted to get a win. I didn’t look at it as personal. I just wanted to get a big team win and bounce back from (Saturday)."
Zeigler made sure Tennessee didn’t go home from Connecticut winless. As the final seconds counted down, he pretended he was going to shoot at the buzzer in front of the UT bench.
He didn’t, turning and smiling instead at his teammates who mobbed him.
An hour later, Zeigler soaked in the moment with family and friends in the same spot. Then he ran across the court, down the opposite tunnel and out of sight.
“It was really special,” Zeigler said. “I had a lot of people here, a lot of friends watching the game. It did mean a lot to me.”
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.