CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon didn’t fully realize he loved his team until the late stages of Tuesday’s showdown against North Carolina, where for the first time this young season, everything seemed to be caving in around them. With just under five minutes to play, Maryland trailed by nine points and Turgeon called timeout. The Smith Center was shaking at well over 100 decibels at that point, making it more tedious for Turgeon and his assistants to make adjustments in the huddle.
Even after an 89-81 loss to the Tar Heels, Turgeon would not forget that moment. Everyone in the huddle was still talking about pulling out a win, even if it didn’t seem plausible on a night when North Carolina simply looked more polished. Reality eventually set in. Maryland was stubborn and showed resilience inside one of college basketball’s famed venues, but it was also mistake-prone and picked apart late by a team that has identical aspirations.
“We’ve got work to do,” Turgeon said.
The loss spoiled a brilliant night by sophomore point guard Melo Trimble, who finished with 23 points and 12 assists in one of the best performances of his young career. He finally put to rest questions about balancing his roles as both scorer and facilitator, but Maryland will return to College Park on Wednesday with more pressing issues at hand, particularly on the defensive end.
Junior forward Robert Carter Jr. added 11 points for the Terrapins (6-1), who looked rattled early but made a second-half push against their former Atlantic Coast Conference rivals.
The ninth-ranked Tar Heels were simply too much on a night when they welcomed back all-American point guard Marcus Paige, who sat out the first six games of the season with a hand injury but showed no ill effects Tuesday. Paige finished with 20 points and five assists, often trading offensive exploits with Trimble. Senior forward Brice Johnson had 16 points and six rebounds, making a number of electrifying plays that left Maryland stunned.
“That had the feel of an old ACC tournament game,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said after the game.
Maryland made 12 of 26 shots from beyond the arc, including five threes from senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon. The former Duke guard’s presence elicited a shower of boos all night from North Carolina’s crowd, setting the tone for the first true road environment Maryland faced, and surely one of its most difficult of the season. Sulaimon finished with 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting.
Maryland committed 13 first-half turnovers and trailed by that margin at one point, but pulled within 41-35 with a late surge thanks largely to Trimble and Sulaimon.
Turgeon identified several key issues moving forward: He must create more depth at guard to avoid burning out Trimble (38 minutes) and Sulaimon (35 minutes) later this season. Maryland’s early season defensive issues also persisted Tuesday, as it struggled to defend on the perimeter (North Carolina hit 9 of 13 from three-point range) and in transition, where Paige and Joel Berry did much of their damage.
Paige didn’t show any residual effects of the hand injury that had sidelined him, playing 34 minutes and finishing with five assists against one turnover. He also brought the best out of Trimble in the second half. After Trimble had knocked down a three-pointer to cut the lead to 48-43 early in the second half, Paige quickly ran the ball up and eventually pulled up for his own deep ball. After he connected to push the lead back to eight, Trimble flashed his signature smile and shook his head. It was on.
“I was too much worried about the hype and stuff,” Trimble said. “In the second half, I had to start believing in myself and playing basketball.”
Turgeon was frustrated with himself in the first half because he couldn’t figure out a way to help Trimble through North Carolina’s swarming half-court traps, which forced the sophomore point guard to commit four turnovers in the first half. He committed four more in the final 20 minutes, but seemed to be liberated from the pressure after Turgeon made halftime adjustments in order to better space the floor with his offense. Sulaimon’s three-point shooting ability (5 for 9) certainly helped stretch the floor in the final 20 minutes, too. As boos continued to rain down, Sulaimon seemed to thrive.
After Trimble knocked down another three to pull Maryland within 67-64 with just over 10 minutes remaining, the sophomore guard snagged a defensive rebound on the ensuing possession and fed a streaking Sulaimon in transition to set up a three-point play to tie the game.
“I think I got the best back court in the country with those two, I really do,” Turgeon said.
Even on a night when small forward Jake Layman finished with just four points on 1-of-5 shooting, Maryland once again proved it could score at a high clip. (The front court, bolstered by power forward Carter, finished with a combined 30 points.) The more pressing issue was Maryland’s lack of production on the defensive end, which was glaring down the stretch.
As the Terps’ offense sputtered and hit just two of its last 10 shots, North Carolina went on a 9-2 run late to pull away. The back-breaker came with 2 minutes 17 seconds left, after Carter blocked a Johnson shot attempt. Reserve forward Isaiah Hicks scored the tip-in to extend the lead to 87-76. Looking for a call, Turgeon just waved his hand at the court in disgust. It certainly wasn’t intended for his team, which came together a little more in the most humbling fashion Tuesday.
“I think we really believe in each other,” Turgeon said. “I didn’t love our team until tonight. I really liked them, but this is going to make us a lot better.”