The game would have been more lopsided had North Carolina Coach Roy Williams not retired Zeller, the 7-foot center whose 20 made free throws on 23 attempts were both Smith Center records, with nearly seven minutes remaining and 6-11 forward John Henson (19 points, nine rebounds) soon after.
It underscored the considerable gulf between the teams in skill, depth, experience, with North Carolina (26-4, 13-2 ACC) holding a decisive advantage on all counts.
With the victory, North Carolina set up a showdown with Duke (also 13-2 in conference play) on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the ACC’s regular season title.
Maryland (16-13, 6-9) will finish Mark Turgeon’s first season with a 1-8 record on the road. And Sunday’s finale against Virginia at Comcast Center may prove a challenge for Sean Mosley, whom Terrapins fans will honor at their own senior day, after Mosley injured an ankle during the first half Wednesday. He played on, managing four points on 1-for-9 shooting, despite obvious pain.
Freshman Nick Faust led the Terps with a career-high 17 points. Junior James Padgett recorded 13 points and 13 rebounds.
But after cutting a 13-point deficit to six early in the second half, Maryland fell hopelessly behind as North Carolina surged to a 21-2 run, taking advantage of the Terps’ foul trouble and obvious fatigue.
“I’m not making excuses tonight, but we got tired,” Turgeon said afterward, noting that Mychal Parker played despite strep throat and Mosley refused to come out of the game after suffering the ankle injury on an awkward landing following a block.
“Give [North Carolina] a lot of credit,” Turgeon added. “Especially at about the 14-minute mark to the eight[-minute mark], they were at another level.”
That’s the stretch in which the mounting fouls caught up to the Terps’ big men.
North Carolina led 36-25 at the break, with Zeller and Henson combining for 25 of the Tar Heels’ first-half points.
“You get by one, and there’s the other one,” Turgeon said of guarding the Heels’ twin towers. “They can both score so well; they can both pass well. . . . They’re also both pretty smart basketball players.”
A poor shooting stretch by North Carolina to start the second half gave Maryland an opening. The Terps pulled within six, 36-30, with Faust striking from long range.
But Maryland turned over the ball on back-to-back possessions. And sophomore Terrell Stoglin’s shot wasn’t falling consistently enough to help Maryland climb out of the hole, with the ACC’s leading scorer ending up with 16 points on 4-for-18 shooting.
Alex Len and Ashton Pankey, alternately tasked with stifling Zeller, committed their third and fourth fouls, respectively, with more than 16 minutes to play. It was a 10-point game at that point, Maryland trailing 42-32.
So the job fell to 6-10 Berend Weijs, who picked up his fourth with 12 minutes 2 seconds to play.
With a dunk by Henson, North Carolina led 58-42. Pankey fouled out three seconds later.
Suddenly, Turgeon was calling a timeout to stem a 17-2 North Carolina run, the Heels’ leading 65-42. The deficit worsened. The fouls mounted. Turgeon sent out former walk-on John Auslander to help slow the Tar Heels’ front court. And Len fouled out with 7:37 remaining.
The loss was far more decisive than the teams’ Feb. 4 meeting, in which Maryland led at the half before falling, 83-74. That was before the Terps lost starting point guard Pe’Shon Howard for the season to a knee injury. And the profound impact was reflected in Wednesday’s ball-handling statistics.
North Carolina, which boasts an outstanding point guard in Kendall Marshall, finished with 18 assists to seven turnovers. Maryland had eight assists to 17 turnovers.