North Carolina's Steve Hale practiced for the first time in two weeks yesterday and will be available for the Tar Heels' Atlantic Coast Conference tournament meeting with Maryland Friday, but he will be limited in his playing time, Coach Dean Smith said.
Hale, the senior guard/forward who averages 11.1 points, is recovering from a partially collapsed lung suffered in North Carolina's 77-72 upset loss to Maryland in Chapel Hill Feb. 20. The once top-ranked Tar Heels (26-4, 10-4) finished the regular season by losing three of their last four games to drop to No. 4 in the polls.
Hale's slow recovery is a blow to the Tar Heels, who also lost reserve center Warren Martin (strained foot) against Maryland. Martin has a precautionary cast on his right foot and is still listed as doubtful for the tournament in Greensboro. The injuries would seem to increase the possibility of another upset for the Terrapins (17-12, 6-8), who handed the Tar Heels their first loss at the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center.
Hale is second on the team in assists with 135 and third in scoring. More important, he is perhaps the most vital operator of North Carolina's motion offense, and his ailment forces his team to rely more heavily on Kenny Smith and freshman Jeff Lebo.
Because he can play guard and forward, he also gives the Tar Heels a variety of lineup possibilities, and he is among their most tenacious defensive players. Without him, the Tar Heels lost to North Carolina State, 76-65, on Feb. 23, beat Virginia, 85-79, and lost to No. 1 Duke Sunday, 82-74.
"Steve adds so much," Smith said. "He gets the loose balls, he penetrates the inside, and he forces teams to play him honest from the outside. Without him, defenses have been able to pay more attention to Kenny. We're not able to gamble as much defensively, we're not as deep, and we're not able to push the ball up as well as we'd like."
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell would not concede that the Terrapins have momentum over the Tar Heels going into their first-round meeting Friday (9 p.m.), having won three of their last four games.
"I don't think it makes much difference," he said. "The fact that we beat them actually makes it tougher. They're going to be extra pumped up."
Meanwhile, the Terrapins received news yesterday that their schedule was declared the toughest in the country by the NCAA. With 13 games against ranked teams, it was the second consecutive year the NCAA computer ratings showed the Terrapins' schedule to be the most difficult.