CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina didn't die early and go away as it has in many of its record-setting losses this season, but it didn't have enough to overcome the physical gifts and experience of third-ranked Maryland either.
Juan Dixon scored 18 points and fellow seniors Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton added 16 points apiece as the Maryland Terrapins downed North Carolina, 92-77, before a sellout-but-announced crowd of 18,751 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
Ahead 53-41 early in the second half, the Terrapins went on a 20-10 run keyed by tenacious defense and some accurate 3-point shooting to build a 73-51 advantage with 10:27 left in the game. The lead was too much for UNC to overcome, especially considering Jason Capel had just picked up his fifth foul.
"That was a key stretch no doubt but we battled back," said UNC guard Adam Boone, who had eight points, two assists and two turnovers in 31 minutes. "They had a few runs but we never let it get us down tonight. We can build on that. But losing Jason didn't help."
Although the Tar Heels closed the margin to 15 at 76-61 with 6:53 left and 14 at 89-75, the Terrapins were just too strong and nailed enough key shots to keep sufficient distance between them and the scrappy Heels.
With the loss, however, UNC (6-15, 2-9 Atlantic Coast Conference) tied the school record for most losses in a season and with just one more defeat will be the losingest Tar Heels team in the school's 91 years of basketball.
But tonight was more about what went right as opposed to all that has gone wrong over the past 11 weeks. The Heels played with a high level of energy and appeared more focused and relaxed than in most losses. They also didn't back down from a team with national championship aspirations and potential.
"I thought our effort was good tonight," said UNC coach Matt Doherty. "I can't fault our effort at all. I was proud of the way the guys responded after a tough loss at Wake Forest."
That feeling emanated from the locker room as well.
"Last Wednesday, for whatever reason our effort wasn't there," said junior forward Will Johnson. "We got embarrassed on Wednesday and that hurts and you don't want to go out in front of your home crowd and get shown up. I think we felt like if we gave a better effort we'd have a better chance to win, and we gave a better effort tonight although we didn't get the win."
The most encouraging performance of the night for the Heels was that of freshman forward Jawad Williams. Williams registered season-highs in points (21) rebounds (11) and assists (five) and played with a great deal of ferocity. He also defended relatively well.
"I just had to step up and play," Williams said. "Cape (Jason Capel) got in foul trouble and I was his backup so I had to do what I could do to help the team."
The Cleveland, Ohio, native's performance impressed Maryland's chief.
"I liked his rebounding more than anything," Maryland coach Gary Williams said about UNC's Williams. "I mean, I know he shot it. We recruited Jawad. I think he's a great player. I guess we'll have to see him for a few more years."
"Jawad was great out there tonight," Boone said. "We have a lot of confidence in his game and knew this day would come."
Senior center Kris Lang also had a big night scoring 23 points – 19 in the second half – while battling Maryland's deep and physical front line of Baxter, Wilcox, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle.
But it was North Carolina's overall effort and Williams' night that had the players more upbeat than usual after a double-digit loss. And considering how the season has transpired, the positive tone was justified.
Reserve guard Drew Nicholas chipped 14 points and North Carolina native Chris Wilcox added 13. Point guard Steve Blake tossed in nine points and handed out nine assists for the Terrapins (19-3, 9-1).
Brian Morrison was the only other Tar Heel in double figures with 10 points.
Also of note, UNC, which committed 24 turnovers in an ugly loss at Wake Forest on Wednesday night, coughed up the ball just 13 times against one of the great pressure teams in the nation.
"Coach gave us some freedom today," said Capel, who fouled out in just 18 minutes of action and scored only five points. "He (Doherty) just gave us more freedom. We didn't run a play. We didn't run a play the whole game."
As a result, the Tar Heels appeared much looser on offense.
"Absolutely," Capel said about being more loose. "I think it's better for our guards because they're not out there thinking, ‘I have to get to point A and make the pass to point B.' They're just out there playing and it's good for our team because we didn't turn the ball over as we usually do."
The Tar Heels battled hard in the first half. Doherty opted to go smaller and quicker than usual starting Jackie Manuel in place of Johnson. Offensively it worked in getting the ball up court as the Heels weren't suffocated by the Terps. They were also getting quick looks, like Morrison's 3-pointer that tied the game at 8 three minutes into the contest.
Defensively, however, it was a disaster as the Terrapins's first five field goals were four layups and a dunk. Before going to a bigger lineup, the Tar Heels allowed Maryland to go on an 11-0 run to take a 19-8 lead with 15:04 left before intermission.
The taller Heels of Brian Bersicker and Williams fought hard in the paint and on the glass and UNC crept to within 21-14 with 12:21 left. But the deadeye shooting of Blake and Nicholas helped the Terps close the half outscoring the Heels 26-16 and take a 47-30 lead into halftime.
"I thought we fought hard in the first half," said Lang. "We have been in that situation a lot of times and, well, it didn't work out so well. But tonight I thought the younger guys really stayed with it and played hard."
Despite the positives, however, UNC has now lost 10 of 11 games in 2002 and are in the throes of the worst season in the fabled program's history.
And again, a hint of compassion from those representing schools UNC has devoured over the years surfaced once again.
"I told him I played during Dean Smith's first few years," Maryland's head man said, referring to the postgame handshake with Doherty. "I told him to keep the faith. Matt can coach and Carolina's Carolina."
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.