But after Wayne Ellington connected on a layup with 1:54 left in regulation to put the Tar Heels up nine points – solid defense or not – the outcome was all but sewn up, right?
During a late game timeout, UNC head coach Roy Williams informed his players that they were battling two opponents – Maryland and the game clock. Run out the latter, and the former runs out of chances. But the raucous crowd at the Comcast Center must have drowned out the head coach's pleas.
"We had a turnover in the backcourt with less than four seconds gone on the shot clock," Williams told reporters during Friday's press conference. "We had a missed layup with less than seven seconds gone on the shot clock, [and] we had a turnover – which was a charge – with less than seven seconds gone on the shot clock. If we had three shot clock violations on those three possessions, we win the game."
But Saturday's loss is only the latest chapter in a recent struggle for the offense in late-game situations. It was easy for fans and the media to focus on the offensive explosions by Boston College's Tyrese Rice (25 points) and Wake Forest's Jeff Teague (34 points) in North Carolina's early ACC losses, but Williams has consistently pointed to his team's inability to score down the stretch in those contests as the determining factor.
"I think we shot 26 percent in one half and 28 percent in the other second half of those two games," Williams said last month. "We didn't defend well, we didn't rebound well, but the one thing that sticks out is how poorly we shot the ball."
In all, North Carolina has shot 31.1 percent (37-of-119) from the floor after halftime in its three losses this season.
"I feel like we tend to get a little stagnant and stand around a little bit too much, instead of helping each other get open [and] helping each other get easier shots," Ellington said when asked about the offense's execution in crunch time.
Winning has a way of painting over the ugly parts of a performance, and Ty Lawson has wielded an artist's brush in three of the last four outings. With the Tar Heels trailing 52-44 at Duke on Feb. 11, the junior point guard delivered 21 of his 25 points in lifting his teammates to victory. Four days later in Coral Gables, Lawson continued that trend, scoring 17 of his 21 points after halftime, which included UNC's final 11 points.
After both wins, the Clinton, Md. product indicated that he started looking for his shot more when the offense was struggling. Unfortunately for North Carolina, the third time wasn't a charm, however, as Lawson did everything he could at Maryland – attempting a career-high 20 field goals – but in the end, he was unable to carry his teammates across the finish line in victory.
"I don't know if we've become timid or tentative – that's kind of a strong word – but we're definitely looking to Ty to make a play because we've seen him do it," Bobby Frasor said on Friday. "His ability to blow by his man or get somebody else open is such an easy thing to do, that we almost say, ‘Okay, Ty, go make a play.' We really need to get back into executing what we want. When Coach Williams calls a set, execute it perfectly and score that way, where it's easier for everyone to get involved, rather than Ty having to expend all of his energy making a play for us to get a basket."
If you're an eternal optimist, you might agree with North Carolina's head coach in breaking down the three losses.
"The good thing is that it's been a little bit of both," Williams said. "We might be able to survive just stinking it up on the offensive end or survive just stinking it up on the defensive end. In the three losses, we've had to do both things."
But if you're looking at the situation from the glass-half-empty side of the equation, it's hard not to be concerned about two lingering variables – defense and late-game offensive efficiency – as the Tar Heels prepare for March Madness.