Maryland point guard Reggie Jackson sat in the middle of the jubilant Maryland locker room today, grinning broadly after another solid performance. He talked about what the Terrapins' impressive 92-86 win over North Carolina meant.
"It means we're in the driver's seat in the conference race," he said of his 5-1 team. "People have to come and get us now. We've got three wins on the road."
Maryland's victory gives the Terps a one-game lead on second-place Clemson (4-2) and a 1 1/2-game lead on Duke, Virginia and North Carolina State, all tied for third at 3-2.
But today's game may have meant even more than that. It could mean the end of 13 consecutive years in which North Carolina has finished first or second in the league.
The Tar-Heels' 4-3 conference record by itself would not be reason to write them off. But when 6-foot-8 freshman James Worthy slipped on a wet spot on the floor and broke his right leg in two places with 6:06 left in the game, Carolina's Super Sunday turned into Black Sunday.
Although he is just a freshman, Worthy probably has been Carolina's best player the last month, and has averaged 12.5 points and nine rebounds a game for the season. Today, he and Mike O'Koren were easily UNC's most effective players.
"We just have to get together and keep together," O'Koren said. "He's (Worthy) a great player. If we keep our heads up and play hard we'll be all right. If we don't we'll get blown out."
Carolina Coach Dean Smith undoubtedly will move Al Wood back to his natural forward position and start Jimmy Black next to Dave Colescott at guard. That gives the Tar Heels a solid, but small lineup. With their weakness at center the Tar Heels may have a tough time rebounding.
That doesn't necessarily mean they will stop winning. Three years ago, faced with injuries to the likes of Walter Davis, Tom LaGarde and Phil Ford during the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels went to the championship game.
But right now, the team to beat is Maryland, picked fifth in preseason. The Terps, none of whom ever had beaten Carolina, have won three conference road games, have played three of their four games on Tobacco Road, and are 5-1 in the league.
"No one's ever really in the driver's seat in this league because its so balanced, Terp guard Greg Manning said. "But right now we're certainly in good shape.
And what about the national rankings, which as of today included five ACC teams in the top 20, but ignored first place Maryland?
"Well, if Carolina's ninth, I guess we're a little better," Manning said.
Coach Lefty Driesell, who said he voted his team in the top 15 in last week's United Press International poll, tried to hedge when confronted with the ranking question.
"Haven't even thought about it yet," he said.
But, pressed further, he flicked an ash off his cigar and said, "Maybe I'll vote us No. 1, that's what y'all want me to say, isn't it?"
Still, there is no doubt about who is No. 1 in the ACC at the moment.
"They're the No. 1 team in the league," O'Koren said. "No question about it."