CHAPEL HILL, N.C -- . Maryland lost another basketball game Saturday, this time by a deceptive 74-73 score to North Carolina. The Terrapins, down by 17 points in the first half, almost came all the way back, getting to within two points twice in the last minute.

And so, predictably, Carolina Coach Dean Smith talked about what a great job Maryland had done coming back. So did Maryland Coach Bob Wade. The two men were not all wrong. But they weren't all right, either.

The fact is, North Carolina was ripe for an upset. The Tar Heels turned the ball over 20 times -- 15 in the first half. Their best player, J.R. Reid, turned it over seven times. What's more, the Tar Heels play top-ranked Temple on Sunday and even though Smith claimed that was no factor, even his programmed players are human enough that they had to be looking ahead.

But this isn't about North Carolina, although its performance this game is worthy of analysis. For example: how could Jeff Lebo, one of the smartest players in the country, commit one of the most foolish fouls you will see all season, hacking Steve Hood as he went up to shoot with five seconds left and Carolina up, 72-68? Maryland was out of timeouts and if Hood's shot had gone in, the game would have ended without Carolina even having to inbound the ball.

Instead, Lebo stopped the clock, Hood made the free throws and Ranzino Smith had to make two more free throws to ice the game. "I didn't think Jeff fouled him," Dean Smith said. "I thought he had his hands up in the air."

Lebo shouldn't have been within five yards of him.

Vulnerable though they may be, the Tar Heels are 20-3 and leading the Atlantic Coast Conferenced. The team in question at the moment is Maryland. Five weeks ago, after their victory at Duke, the Terrapins were 3-1 in the ACC and Wade was being toasted nationwide. Now, they have lost six of their last seven league games and their overall record of 13-10 leaves them at least three victories from an NCAA bid.

"We're still such a young team that we haven't learned to be consistent," said senior guard Keith Gatlin. "Some nights we just haven't come to play the way we should. When we know we're the underdog, like against Duke or North Carolina, we come out and play like gangbusters. We go down and beat Duke at their place and then go to Virginia and get blown out. We have to get past that."

In truth, Maryland is not that young a team. Derrick Lewis is a four-year starter. Gatlin has been around five years. Four other players started all of last season. The only key player who is inexperienced is freshman center Brian Williams.

The real inexperience on this team is on the bench. Wade is still learning his trade. That was evident today. Consider some of Wade's substitutions. In the first half, Lewis picked up his third foul with 1:58 left. Wade put Williams back in for him. Seventeen seconds later, Williams picked up a three-point play.

Then, for some reason, Wade took Williams out and put in Rodney Walker. It took Walker 39 seconds to commit a silly offensive foul. At that point, Wade put Williams back in.

"We originally took Brian out because we thought he had two fouls," Wade said when asked his thinking. "But when we saw that he only had one, we put him back in."

Fine, so far. It doesn't explain why Wade put Walker in. "Well, we didn't want Brian to pick up that second foul," he said.

That doesn't explain why he put Williams back in after Walker's foul. Or why Walker, who wasn't seen again, was used at all in that situation.

Then there is John Johnson. A starter all last season, Johnson has played sporadically this year. Today, he didn't set foot on the floor until there was 7:57 to play. Then, with the game on the line in the last three minutes, he was in the game, missing a three-point jump shot and turning the ball over on an inbounds pass.

"We needed a defensive stopper down the stretch," Wade said of his decision to put Johnson in after 32 minutes of watching. "I had no problem with his taking that shot. He was open. I encouraged him to shoot."

That really doesn't make much sense. If you are behind, as Maryland was, you need offense. If you need a basket in the last three minutes down by five points, you do not want a person who has not yet shot the ball in the game taking the shot.

A pattern has developed here. Because Maryland has so much talent, Wade has shuffled players in and out of the lineup all season. Today, Tony Massenburg, a starter much of the season, played nine minutes. Teyon McCoy started the game but played only 10 minutes.

The time for experimenting is December; January at the latest. Not late February. Maryland has been streaky during games, going down today, 28-11, then going on an 18-4 run to get back. That is the sign of a team that is talented but unsure of itself.

Wade does not take criticism or second-guessing well. He has been treated with kid gloves by most of the media since he took this job and yet today he complained about critics.

"I don't read the papers," he said, sounding a familiar coaches cry. "The media are the biggest critics in the world. They just don't know what's happening."

Having said that, Wade cornered a reporter who had written a week ago that Duke had beaten Maryland in the recruiting of Brian Davis of Bladensburg High School. "We didn't offer him a scholarship," Wade said.

Davis was a guest at a number of Maryland games this season. The Terrapins were obviously recruiting him. Perhaps Wade should worry less about the newspapers he says he doesn't read and be more concerned about settling on a lineup that will allow Maryland to live up to its vast potential during the final month of the season.