“We had another breakdown,” Reyshawn Terry said. “We lacked focus. We didn’t convert the way we should down the stretch.”
This loss may hurt a little more than some simply because UNC (24-5, 10-4 ACC) seemed to have things under control most of the night. After a pair of games against teams bent on controlling tempo, the Tar Heels got to stretch their legs in an end-to-end shootout with the Terps content to run with them.
“North Carolina plays at a fast pace and we try to play at a fast pace, too,” UMd senior D.J. Strawberry said. “It was just up-and-down the whole game, and it wears you out. We could have given up; they had us down by 12 and they were hitting a lot of shots, and they were on a roll.”
Wayne Ellington’s 10 straight points lifted the Tar Heels to a 12-5 lead, and following a Terps’ bucket, UNC reeled off eight straight points to go up 20-7 with 13:07 to play in the first half.
Maryland then went on 15-6 run a few minutes later to get within two at one point before settling for a 44-41 halftime deficit.
The Terps (22-7, 8-6) dominated the inside with a 46-33 rebounding advantage and a 52-40 scoring edge in the paint. At halftime, the Terps had 15 offensive boards to UNC’s 15 total.
“Early in the game they just kicked us as hard as you could be kicked,” Roy Williams said. “They went after the basketball harder than we did.”
Maryland made only one of six three-point attempts in the opening period, but that was about to change. The Terps would shoot 64 percent from the floor in the final 20 minutes.
Maryland tied the score for the first time at 52 apiece four minutes into the second half, but Carolina answered and was back up 69-59 at the 10:21 mark.
With 7:13 to play, UNC appeared to be cruising ahead by 12. But following a Greivis Vasquez layup, Strawberry and Mike Jones nailed back-to-back threes get the Terps within 77-73.
The 17,950 mostly red-clad fans were now back into it, and so was Maryland. The second of two mid-range jumpers by Jones would give the Terps their first lead at 81-80 with 2:47 to play.
Maryland closed out the final 6:05 with a 22-10 run.
With the Heels down two with four seconds left, Brandan Wright – a 56 percent free throw shooter – went to the line but couldn’t convert his first attempt. Then with Wright missing the second on purpose, Carolina couldn’t get off a miracle attempt at the buzzer.
“We had a play on, but the ball bounced off to the wrong side,” Williams said regarding the intentional missed free throw by Wright.
In a solemn visitors’ locker room after the game, players questioned their team’s mindset in close games.
“It is a toughness thing,” said Tyler Hansbrough, who led UNC with 22 points. “We can’t crumble whenever the game gets tight. We have to lock down, play tough defense and get stops.”
Marcus Ginyard added, “It’s just not enough toughness. You have to respond when you come up against a team with that mean streak in them. You can’t be too finesse. ”
Strawberry scored a career-high 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. Jones added 18 as five Terps scored in double figures.
“Beating North Carolina, a top-five team at home, showed the toughness that we have,” said Strawberry. “We just toughed it out and it shows the heart of this team. We just wanted it more than they did.”
Ellington added 17 points, but missed eight shots including a 3-for-7 mark from beyond the arc. Wright had 12 points and a team-high seven rebounds.
With the loss, UNC slipped back into a three-way tie atop the ACC Standings with Virginia (10-4) and Virginia Tech (10-4) – two teams that meet in Charlottesville on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels, who return to action Thursday at Georgia Tech (18-10, 6-8), have the tie-breaker advantage over the Cavaliers but not the Hokies by way of their head-to-head meetings earlier this season.
“So far we’ve bounced back pretty good after losses, but that doesn't mean one blessed thing unless you do it,” Williams said. “We’ve got to do it again.”