Maryland declared itself the darling of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament tonight, defeating fourth-ranked North Carolina, 85-75, in the final game of the first round. Call it sweet, call it stunning, but as Len Bias would say, don't call it an upset.
The Terrapins, a battered squad that lost eight of 10 games at one point, didn't just beat the Tar Heels in this quarterfinal game. They humiliated and angered them. They built a 16-point lead with 3:24 remaining and then hung on for dear life. Literally, because Tar Heels center Brad Daugherty got so hot he went after Len Bias, who got so excited he got a technical, and all in all it was just a brawl. But a brilliant one for the Terrapins.
"I've been saying all along we're pretty good, but you won't believe me," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said. "We just keep beating people we're not supposed to beat. It's fun."
The Terrapins will play sixth-ranked Georgia Tech, a 79-61 winner over Clemson earlier this evening, in Saturday's second semifinal game at 3:30 p.m. Duke will play Virginia in Saturday's first semifinal at 1:30.
Maryland lost to the Yellow Jackets twice during the regular season. Regardless of their performance the rest of the way, however, the Terrapins (18-12) appear assured of an NCAA Tournament bid now, having won seven of their last nine games.
Maryland trailed, 34-28, at the end of a first half in which the Terrapins went scoreless for six minutes and North Carolina (26-5) threatened to make it a rout. But the Terrapins opened the second half by outscoring the Tar Heels, 18-3, to take a 46-37 lead with 13:43 left, held off a North Carolina comeback that cut the margin to four, and then raced to the finish, ending the game with arms pinwheeling in the air.
The Terrapins got 20 points from Bias, 13 in the second half, as he became Maryland's all-time leading scorer with 2,072 points, passing Albert King's mark of 2,058. Bias also had 13 rebounds, tying his career high.
Maryland guard Jeff Baxter scored 21 points, 15 in the second half. Keith Gatlin had 18, 16 coming after halftime, and also had eight assists. And Derrick Lewis added 12 points.
The Terrapins' performance came in front of a frantic crowd of 16,242 at Greensboro Coliseum, many of whom might have suspected it would turn out this way. Certainly among the least surprised by the result were the Terrapins, who have said all along they were this good.
"People keep saying this is a big upset." said Bias. "This is no upset. We didn't play over our heads. You've got to put us right up there with them now."
Precisely. It was the second defeat the Terrapins handed the Tar Heels this season, which is likely to exacerbate a rivalry that is already acrimonious. The Terrapins defeated the Tar Heels by 77-72 in overtime on Feb. 20 to knock them out of the No. 1 ranking and give them their first loss in the new Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center.
Tonight's game marks the first time since 1973 that North Carolina has been eliminated from the ACC tournament in the first round. That year, the Tar Heels lost to Wake Forest, 54-52. In addition, this is the first time since 1966 that a North Carolina senior class has not won an ACC basketball title.
The Tar Heels, who started the season by winning 21 straight, have lost four of their last five games.
"We've got to do something to get straight,"Coach Dean Smith said. "Mentally and physically."
The Tar Heels go home with abundant physical problems after suffering yet another injury tonight. Guard Steve Hale and center Warren Martin did return to action, but starting forward Joe Wolf left the game with 13:39 left in the first half after spraining his left ankle and did not play again.
Daugherty had a game-high 22 points for the Tar Heels; Hale and Kenny Smith added 14 each. The Tar Heels shot just 42 percent for the game and had 10 second-half turnovers.
Maryland's first-half troubles, which included 11 turnovers and just 40 percent shooting, faded away in the opening minutes of the second half. Part of the reason was a new offensive scheme that moved Bias to the perimeter to take away North Carolina's double-teaming. Baxter instead ran Bias' favorite baseline plays, and it was his jumper that ended the 18-3 Maryland run that turned the game around.
Maryland pulled away, building a 73-57 lead with 3:24 left. The Tar Heels showed their frustration with 2:55 left, when Lewis blocked Kenny Smith's dunk attempt. Bias said something, and Daugherty went for him. Lewis was called for a foul and Bias received a technical, apparently for what he said the Smith.
"I was just saying something to Derrick," Bias said. "I guess they thought I was saying something to them."
North Carolina never came closer than eight again, Smith making it 80-72 with 1:04 left. And by then it was too late for the Tar Heels.