Maryland led top-ranked North Carolina for 35 minutes in their Atlantic Coast Conference basketball game last night, but the undefeated Tar Heels managed to remain just that -- unbeaten -- with a 71-67 victory over the Terrapins at a packed Cole Field House that was half-mad with the possibility of upset.
Maryland led by as many as nine points with 11:17 to go and still had a four-point margin with a little more than five minutes remaining. But the Tar Heels took the initiative when it mattered, and Kenny Smith's jam gave them their final four-point margin with 11 seconds left.
Maryland stunned a sellout crowd of 14,500 by taking a 42-39 lead at the half, only the third time this year North Carolina has trailed at intermission. The Terrapins controlled all but the last five minutes of the game with a careful offense that spread points around, and they inhibited the score-happy Tar Heels -- who came in averaging 96 points and had scored more than 100 in seven games -- with some of their finest pressure defense in recent memory.
"That's the first time I've seen Maryland play pressure man defense, and they did it very well," said Coach Dean Smith. "You have to give credit for that to Charles . . . make that Coach Charles G. Driesell."
But as in so many other losses to North Carolina, the Terrapins failed in the stretch with poor shot selection and lost the momentum against the Tar Heels' unforgiving defense. They shot just 39 percent to North Carolina's 70 percent in the second half and could not get the ball effectively to all-America Len Bias, who had a game-high 20 points but was just eight for 20 from the field.
Driesell was visibly frustrated by the loss. His postgame comments were terse and he did not entertain questions, slipping quietly back into his office. He is 7-26 against the Tar Heels and 5-12 against them in Cole Field House. North Carolina leads the overall series by 80-33.
"I'm 54 years old and I still despise losing," Driesell said. "For 35 minutes we played as good as anybody in the country. The last five minutes we played like a bunch of hot dogs. We shot ourselves out of it. The bad shots at the end just caught us. We were trying too hard, or whatever.
"We played great defense, we outrebounded them (33-28). We led by nine points, we were on our home court with 15,000 people behind us and we should have won going away. That's all I can say. That's it."
Maryland's nine-point lead came with 11:17 left at 58-49. But the Tar Heels outscored the Terrapins, 16-7, to overcome the deficit and tie the score at 65 with 4:48 left on Steve Hale's layup. North Carolina (17-0 overall, 3-0 in the ACC) then took the lead with 3:16 left when Warren Martin's two free throws made it 67-65. When Maryland's Keith Gatlin missed a jumper, Hale made it 69-65 with a 17-footer.
Bias brought the Terrapins (10-5, 0-3) within two with his jumper with 1:25 remaining. But Maryland could not get the shots it needed against North Carolina's defense. With less than 30 seconds remaining, Bias missed a long jumper that could have tied it, and Smith stripped Terry Long of the rebound.
Following a Maryland foul and a timeout with 21 seconds left, Smith went the length of the court after taking the inbounds pass for his uncontested dunk with 11 seconds remaining.
"That's the way it always happens," said Maryland forward Derrick Lewis, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in what probably was the most complete performance of the night. "We started taking bad shots. They were trapping, and we started taking more bad shots. We just got out of our offense; that's been the story of our whole season."
Of the shots that Maryland missed over the last five minutes, none of them could be called absolutely bad. They were just a little rushed or a little off-balance. Jeff Baxter had an eight-footer blocked by Martin, Gatlin's wide-open 15-footer ran around the rim three times before falling out, another by Gatlin bounced back and forth before missing.
Maryland had two shots left after a final timeout following Smith's jam. But Brad Daugherty blocked Lewis' short jumper, and Baxter's followup hit the rim as time ran out.
The Terrapins had some good individual performances. Baxter had 15 points and six rebounds starting at guard. Long, regaining his starting spot at center after a strong performance against Georgia Tech last Saturday, had seven points, three rebounds and two assists.
Maryland was hurt most by freshman Jeff Lebo, who kept Carolina close for much of the game and finished with 18 points. The Terrapins did, however, hold the ACC's second-leading scorer, the 6-11 Daugherty, to 15. Hale had 10.
"We've got to play well the whole way," Gatlin said. "We took good shots. We just couldn't knock them in."
North Carolina scored the first six points of the second half to take the lead after trailing by three at halftime. But Maryland then went on a run over which it outscored the Tar Heels, 10-4, taking a 52-49 lead with 13:34 remaining.
The Terrapins kept the lead until 5:26 remained, Gatlin's jumper making it 65-61. Then came a crucial sequence for North Carolina. Smith stole the ball from Bias and Martin turned it into two free throws. Then Maryland could not score on the other end, Lewis missing two shots, Bias getting a shot blocked by Daugherty, and the Tar Heels finally coming up with the rebound. Smith threw it to Hale, whose fast-break layin tied the score at 65 with 4:14 left.
North Carolina is the third top five team Maryland has lost to in the last 11 days. The Terrapins lost to third-ranked Duke by six after overcoming an 18-point deficit, then lost by one to Georgia Tech after overcoming a 21-point deficit.
"I'd rather lose by 10 or 15 points than be this close," Baxter said. "The close ones are hurting us."