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The Terrapins had beaten UNC twice this season, the second time by 40 points in College Park, Md., in a game where it appeared as if the Tar Heels had quit. The Terps started four seniors while UNC started three freshmen and two sophomores. Maryland had big guys Ryan Randle, Tahj Holden, and strong mid-size players UNC shouldn’t have been able to match up with.
By all accounts, this was to be a mismatch.
Jawad Williams scored 25 points and Melvin Scott scored a career-high 19 to lead seventh-seeded UNC (17-14) to an improbable upset of second-seeded Maryland, 84-72, at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“First of all, I want to thank my team for their effort,” said UNC coach Matt Doherty. “Not only for this game, but throughout the season.
“And tonight, having lost to this team by 40 points and to win by 12, I don’t know if that’s some kind of record in terms of a loss and a win in the ACC tournament, but it’s got to be something.
“I don’t think anybody gave us a chance here.”
Trailing 48-43 with 12:48 remaining in the game, Scott drained a key 3-pointer when it appeared as if things might be slipping away, as it did three weeks ago when UNC was outscored 49-16 to close out the massacre at the Comcast Center. A left-handed jam by Rashad McCants knotted the game at 48, and it was suddenly clear the Heels weren’t going anywhere.
“That was real big for us because we let them know we weren’t going to get beat like last time,” freshman forward David Noel said.
While the Terps (19-9) tied the game at 50 on a jam by Jamar Smith, a 3 by Raymond Felton (20 points, 10 assists) put the Heels up for good at 53-50 with 10:23 remaining.
From that point on, UNC slowly extended its lead, both at the free throw line and with excellent defense. Carolina’s defense was so strong in the second half that the Terps rarely were able to run their normal offense, the one that gave the Tar Heels bigger frets than any other opponent all year.
“We had guarded that stuff all week,” said Noel. “We had a lot of time to prepare. We went over their stuff constantly, constantly. If we messed up on one little thing we were at the line running. So, we knew their stuff like the back of our hand. And we just wanted to come out and guard it, and we did a great job of it tonight.”
UNC forced the Terps into 12 second-half turnovers, and scored 19 second-half points as a result of Maryland’s benevolence.
“They got a lot of points off our turnovers in the first half so we wanted to flip the script, we wanted to take care of the ball better in the second half and that’s what we did,” Scott said. “Maryland’s a great transition team, and when you slow them down and run them, it’s like them against them, so that’s what we tried to do.”
UNC’s surprising domination on the glass – a 40-30 Tar Heels’ advantage - was also a factor in the upset.
“We did?” Noel asked with his eyes raised and clearly surprised. “We just wanted the ball, and we knew if we were going to win this game that we would have to do every little thing that mattered.
“The rebounding margin? I don’t know what to say about that. They are bigger and stronger inside, but we just used our quickness and speed to get around them to get to the offensive and defensive boards.”
And of course there was the play of Scott. A reserve all season, he got extended minutes (35) because of an injury to Jackie Manuel, and while the Heels committed 23 turnovers on the night, Scott had zero.
“He was amazing tonight,” Noel said of Scott. “We have a lot of confidence in him, and when we needed him to, he gave us a big lift.”
Drew Nicholas led Maryland with 18 points while Steve Blake added 12 and John Gilcrest chipped in 10.
Rashad McCants added 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Tar Heels.
Carolina was sluggish at the game’s outset. UNC had five turnovers and only two shot attempts reached the rim in the first five minutes and trailed 9-2. But three quick 3-pointers got the Heels right back in the game.
In fact, perimeter shooting essentially kept Carolina in the game. For the half UNC made six of 13 from beyond the arc. And when the long balls fell through, it opened up a few interior options, and Carolina was at 53.8 percent from the field for the half. Not bad considering the Tar Heels had given the ball away an alarming 12 times.
And while the Heels coughed it up 11 times in the second half, it was overshadowed by one of their top defensive efforts of the season, coupled with the splendid play of Williams, Felton and Scott.
And with the season still alive and kicking and the Heels playing with an extra skip in their collective steps, who knows, maybe they can stick around a little longer.
North Carolina will face Duke in Saturday's 4 p.m. semifinal. The Blue Devils defeated Virginia in Friday night's final quarterfinal game (box score).
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.