CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The month of December was less than 24 hours old, and yet the Smith Center had the vibe of a late February contest critical to postseason positioning. In some respects, this ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup carried a similar weight for No. 9 North Carolina.
The Terrapins represent the lone ranked non-conference opponent for the Tar Heels, and one of only two currently ranked opponents on the schedule through the month of January (No. 14 Syracuse on Jan. 9 is the other).
That absence of elite-level competition elevated the importance of Tuesday’s contest, which turned the Smith Center into the intimidating setting that’s typically reserved for the Duke rivalry.
“That had a feel of an old ACC game, that had a feel of a ACC Tournament game, it had a feel of a NCAA Tournament game, and it was just fortunate for us that it was in our building,” Roy Williams said following the win.
There was also the return of Marcus Paige, who had missed the first six games with a broken right hand, to energize both his teammates and the crowd. The All-American guard did not disappoint, leading UNC with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting (4-of-5 from 3), to go along with five assists, two steals and two drawn charges.
The matchup delivered in both skill and talent, whether it was Terps point guard Melo Trimble exploiting UNC’s defense on the pick-and-roll for game-highs in points (23) and assists (12), former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon displaying his touch from the perimeter (18 points, 5-of-9 on 3s) or Tar Heel bigs Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson combining for 28 points on 13-of-23 shooting.
Both teams shot over 50 percent – UNC finished at 53.2, slightly better than Maryland’s 50.8 – and both turned the ball over at volatile rates. The Tar Heels scored 21 points off 22 turnovers, while the Terps settled for 15 points off 15 errors.
Maryland connected on 11 of its first 15 field goals after halftime, erasing a 13-point first-half deficit to tie the game at 67-67. The Tar Heels scored on seven of their next nine possessions, while securing stops on the other end to push their lead back to 87-76 with 2:17 to play. The Terps missed 14 of their final 19 shots.
“Whenever they first scheduled this game back whenever they scheduled it, everybody had their mind set on this game,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said. “So going into this game, I think everybody really had a mindset that we’ve got to lock down and we’ve got to play defense like we’re supposed to. We had some lapses, which I’m sure we can go back and look on film, but for the most part, the entire game, we really kept it up.”
The offseason anticipation surrounding this game hyped the potential of a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup, which failed to transpire due to UNC’s loss at Northern Iowa 10 days ago. Even so, the Tar Heels were the better team of two Final Four contenders in a game five days after Thanksgiving that will still be relevant in March.
“We still feel we’re one of the best teams in the country, regardless of the drop in the rankings,” Paige said. “This was an opportunity for us to prove that. It was a big win for us; it gives us momentum going forward. It means a lot, even though it’s just an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game and it’s early December.
“These kind of games can do a lot for a team.”