Not since 1980 has Maryland beaten North Carolina in basketball. Five straight times the Tar Heels have defeated the Terrapins, the last time by one point last month in Chapel Hill.

Carolina, ranked No. 3 in the nation, has won 18 of the last 19 meetings. Maryland, unranked, still is searching for some measure of national respect.

Despite Carolina's dominance, Terrapin Coach Lefty Driesell says the rivalry has the verve of the Redskins-Cowboys contests and promises, "It will be a great game," tonight when Carolina visits sold-out Cole Field House at 8:30 (WJLA-TV-7).

The string of defeats at the hands of Carolina "ought to be enough incentive for us to get fired up," Driesell said. "I'll be fired up, and I hope our players are snortin' fire from their lungs."

There is a larger incentive. Maryland needs a victory tonight to strengthen its push toward an NCAA tournament berth. Also, a third-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference is in reach, with the Terrapins having seven league games remaining.

But North Carolina has won all eight of its ACC games this season. And Driesell has told his players they need their best game of the year to beat the Tar Heels, who lost a nonconference game to Villanova Sunday, less than three days after an emotional, almost unbelievable comeback victory over Virginia.

"They may not be No. 1 anymore, but Carolina is playing better than anybody in the country," said Maryland guard Jeff Adkins.

And Carolina sophomore Michael Jordan may be playing better than any other guard in the country. He is becoming the ACC's most dominant noncenter since David Thompson.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Jordan, 6 feet 5, is very often unstoppable. He shot poorly against Virginia, but made the winning basket after stealing the ball from sure-handed Rick Carlisle, then went over Ralph Sampson to get the rebound of Virginia's game-ending missed shot.

"Jordan is like James Worthy, in that he has a rare sense of where the ball is and where it's going," said Maryland's Mark Fothergill. "On defense, he roams around like a madman, the way Worthy used to do. A lot of the time he's not even near his man. He just plays the court and causes all kinds of confusion."

This much is not confusing. If the Terrapins let Jordan tip and tap his way around the offensive boards and sneak and steal, Maryland will not win.

Adkins, also 6-5, could begin the game guarding Jordan. Adkins is his team's best defensive guard, but is not nearly as quick as Jordan. Driesell, in man-to-man defense, may opt to use freshman Len Bias, who at 6-8 is one of the league's few players who not only is as quick as Jordan but jumps higher.

The Terrapins also have to keep Sam Perkins under control. But Maryland center Ben Coleman and Fothergill consistently have done that the last two years.

Then there's Carolina's three-point shooting, something it uses more strategically than any other team in the ACC. In the game Jan. 12, Jimmy Braddock sank a 20-footer with six seconds left that pulled Carolina from two points behind Maryland to victory.

"We can't give Braddock an open anything," Adkins said.

The Tar Heels will have their share of worries, too. Maryland had won seven straight before an inexplicably poor effort at Wake Forest last Wednesday. And several of the Terrapins said yesterday they believe the team will benefit from a week's rest.

"We need to play them the same way we did last month," Adkins said. "We weren't scared of them down there. We initiated the action and ran the shot clock down and took good shots. We're rested now and we've worked on the things we need to do to win. Now, it's up to us."