CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The Maryland men’s basketball team managed to compact an entire season’s worth of frustration into the opening two minutes against North Carolina, each futile possession in their 75-63 loss eliciting a familiar reaction from an exasperated Coach Mark Turgeon. The Terrapins fell behind early, mounted a comeback, fell behind again, threatened to come back once more then fizzled away as the chants of “A-C-C, A-C-C” once again rained down.
Turgeon threw his hands in the air. He spanked the scorer’s table. After one particularly heedless defensive sequence, he turned to the Terrapins’ bench, kneeled and stared at his assistant coaches. He gripped his face with his hand and turned his back to the action, seemingly unable to watch as the players sped by.
“To win,” Turgeon said, “you can’t start a game that way.”
An otherwise positive postgame news conference Tuesday night seemed to stem from how Maryland (13-10, 5-5 ACC) finished against the Tar Heels, but that meant excising its horrid start from memory. Even before the fans had finished trickling into Smith Center, North Carolina (15-7, 5-4) had sprung to an 11-point lead that left the Terps stunned. Remove that stretch from the box score and they actually played their hosts even. But in reality, they never recovered.
“In the first half, I felt like we came out on our tippy-toes,” forward Charles Mitchell said. “We weren’t playing aggressive enough. We had to come from a deficit, so we had to fight our way back into the game, instead of just playing basketball.”
Maryland arrived here feeling like it had turned a corner, working a modest two-game winning streak against Miami and Virginia Tech (combined ACC wins: three). The players were listening more, Turgeon said, and everyone was pleased about the program’s direction.
But routing the despondent Hokies by 20 points was one thing. Venturing into this thumping den of noise and powder blue, where Maryland had lost seven of eight dating back to 2004, is another matter entirely. Over the years, 178 games had been played between these two teams. North Carolina had won 121, more than any other Terps opponent.
It was exactly the first half Maryland couldn’t afford, a deep hole dug with familiar shovels, and all positive vibes the Terps built up during a long, sloppy comeback to come within three points disappeared before intermission. Aimless dribbles turned into panicky passes. Strong defensive possessions were canceled out by fouls, 29 in all for Maryland.
North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige scored a game-high 25 points and was one of three Tar Heels — along with James Michael McAdoo (12 points, nine in the first half) and Brice Johnson (19 points) who posed matchup problems Maryland couldn’t solve.
“In a place like this, when they’re playing so well and they’ve got such a great crowd coming out, it’s going to happen sometimes,” forward Evan Smotrycz said. “But we fought back.”
That the Terps stuck around throughout the second half and kept a potential blowout to only 12 points is what they insisted on lugging back home to College Park, where Florida State will visit on Saturday before road games against Virginia and Duke, both ranked in the top 25.
Even as Maryland fell behind 19-3, hampered by turnovers (12 in the first half) and quick shots (17 missed three-pointers for the game), Turgeon kept telling his players, “We’re fine. Just wake up and start playing a little better.”
But strong nights from Dez Wells and Smotrycz, who had 18 and 14 points, respectively, and 13 rebounds from Mitchell were negated by the errors elsewhere, partially caused by North Carolina’s swarming length, partially caused by Maryland’s affinity for carelessness.
“We just weren’t very good with the ball,” Turgeon said. “At the start of the game, we weren’t very good with the ball, and to finish the half we weren’t very good with the ball. It’s really that simple.”