(AP Photo/The News & Observer, Robert Willett)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The combustion happened fast, as combustions tend to do. Arriving late to the Smith Center on Tuesday night meant missing a spectacular start for the home team and a spectacularly awful one for the visitors. The Maryland men’s basketball team will fly home taking solace from its effort and resolve in a 75-63 loss to North Carolina, but really by halftime everything had already gone up in flames.


“I’m probably going to state the obvious,” Coach Mark Turgeon began his news conference by saying. “We had a bad start. We couldn’t afford a bad start and we had one.”

The Tar Heels made field goals on their first five possessions: two jumpers, a three-pointer, a hook shot and a dunk. Maryland, meanwhile, committed a turnover on its first, missed a rushed three-pointer on its second, air-balled a hook shot on its third and had a layup blocked at the rim on its fourth. By that point, 124 seconds into the evening, the Tar Heels were up 11-0 and Turgeon, finally, decided to call a timeout.

That start, which later ballooned to a 19-3 deficit following the first media timeout, was ultimately negated as the Terps countered with a 16-3 run that brought them within three. Then old habits returned, as they seem to do at the most crucial times this season. Shots were rushed. Passes were tipped. Free throws were missed. And by the end, even after Maryland had played North Carolina to a tie in the second half, it still seemed impossible that the final deficit wasn’t even bigger.

“We had our chances definitely to cut the lead and we didn’t take them,” forward Evan Smotrycz (14 points) said.

Much of the postgame discussion centered on the whistles, of which there were plenty. Maryland committed 29 fouls and North Carolina shot 37 free throws. “Sometimes it’s life on the road,” Turgeon said, and his not-so-subliminal message was clear. But the Terps were unabashed in their physicality, so sloppy in their footwork that they kept bailing the Tar Heels out on long defensive possessions and those added up. By the end, Mitchell had fouled out and five other players had four apiece.

“That happens in every game, no matter what team,” Smotrycz said, at least publicly shrugging off the implication that Maryland wound up on the wrong end of the officiating. “Guys get in foul trouble. You just have to adjust.”

Yet Maryland never quite adjusted well enough. After entering halftime down 39-29, it threatened several times during the second half but couldn’t seem to summit the final mountain. When Smotrycz hit a runner to cut the Tar Heels lead to seven, Marcus Paige (25 points) hit a three-pointer to bring it back to 10. When Dez Wells (team-high 18 points) made a layup, got fouled and hit the ensuing free throw, Paige marched back down and one-upped him with a four-point play.

Later, Turgeon said he believed Maryland still had a chance until roughly two minutes remained. It just never capitalized.

“I think that was the whole key to the game, we never got frustrated and kept answering their runs,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “For us, just answering their charges, answering their push was the biggest point in the game.”

The Terps had shown far less fight in road losses to Pittsburgh, Florida State, Ohio State and North Carolina State before this season, so keeping the deficit below 20 points was at least considered a moral victory. But at this stage in the year, more than halfway through ACC play, what good can moral victories do?

“No one likes to lose, obviously,” Smotrycz said. “But like I said, we felt like we were right there the whole game. We just didn’t take our chances. We played hard and we’ll get back to work in practice.”