Maryland (20-10, 8-9 ACC) strolled into Senior Night with a plus-9.7 rebounding margin, good for third nationally. North Carolina (22-8, 12-5 ACC) ranked second in the ACC with a plus-3.2 edge, although the Tar Heels had been outrebounded in four of its six games since switching to their small lineup.
Maryland’s starting frontcourt consisted of 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward James Padgett and 7-foot-1, 255-pound center Alex Len. North Carolina countered with 6-fot-5, 220-pound guard P.J. Hairston and 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward James Michael McAdoo.
UNC’s defensive plan was simple: jam down when the Terrapins throw the ball inside, force ball movement around the perimeter and wait for the home team to make mistakes. After all, Maryland ranks ninth in the league in 3-point field goal percentage and commits an ACC-high 15.2 turnovers per game.
The Tar Heels scored 13 points off 14 turnovers, and while their help defense in the post allowed a number of open looks from 3-point range, the gamble worked as Maryland missed 20 of its 23 3-pointers.
When asked if UNC”s approach baited Maryland into taking too many threes, Hairston replied: “Exactly.”
McAdoo (10 points, 2 rebounds) and Len (8 points, 7 rebounds) essentially played to a draw while Hairston (22 points, 8 rebounds) dominated his matchup with Padgett (9 points, 7 rebounds) and Maryland’s remaining assortment of post players.
Most importantly, North Carolina held its own on the boards, losing the rebound battle by the narrowest of margins, 34-33. Reggie Bullock led all rebounders with 12.
“They’re definitely one of the better rebounding teams in our conference, so we just had to force ourselves to get on the boards and make plays for our teammates,” Bullock said following UNC’s 79-68 victory.
That activity on the glass was critical, especially considering Clemson’s plus-14 edge in the second half of UNC’s last road game.
“We boxed out more this game,” Hairston said. “At Clemson, we were just allowing offensive rebounds and weren’t fighting for offensive boards. We weren’t chasing the balls down. But this game was different. We had several different hustle plays where the ball was loose and if we didn’t get it, we at least chased for it and tried to get it.”
Maryland was effective in the first half, capitalizing on a 19-16 rebounding edge to post a 14-5 points off offensive rebounds advantage.
“Early on, I thought they were hurting us inside,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “They had 14 points off offensive rebounds in the first half and only had six in the second half. We talked about the biggest thing at halftime was trying to do a better job of rebounding the ball and gang rebounding.”
UNC was so effective with its small lineup that Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon ultimately went away from his team’s strength in an effort to increase the tempo and aid its ability to reduce the deficit.
North Carolina led by as many as 16 midway through the second half. Maryland’s fullcourt press out of its small lineup spurred an 11-2 run to pull within six points with 6:08 to play, but UNC pushed the lead back to 13 with 1:12 remaining.
Maryland shot 50.5 percent through its first 18 home games, but managed just 42.9 percent against the Tar Heels.
“Rebounding and the defensive end of the floor have to be constants for you,” Williams said. “It’s difficult… The rebounding is always going to be a concern of ours with the small lineup.”
North Carolina met that challenge in College Park to win its 12th ACC game in 15 tries and clinch a first-round bye in next week’s ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.