But one senses a slight change in the character of Terrapin fans these days compared to years past -- namely, they are getting to be like Tar Heel fans used to be. They have total confidence in their head coach and total appreciation for each player. They show up at games like this expecting to win and win impressively. And they are enjoying a program that is building on its national title with another stellar season:
Courtside, three key stars from the first half of Gary Williams's College Park tenure sat together, enjoying a warm ovation from the crowd after being noted by the P.A. announcer: Keith Booth, Johnny Rhodes, and Walt Williams. A fourth recent Maryland alum, reserve Norman Fields, served as the day's honorary captain.
When the game was over, Williams sat exhausted but happy on a couch in Maryland's spacious new lockers, taking all questions and revealing something of the degree of attention to detail that has turned his program around: Namely, Williams was unhappy that the game's tip-off had been delayed for 5 minutes because of the Carolina team bus's late arrival at the Comcast, since Maryland's pre-game routine is scripted minute by minute.
Anyone who watched this one on TV will recognize that Maryland was simply brilliant offensively Saturday, and demonstrated remarkable team chemistry and impressive depth. Gary Williams has successfully undertaken what is sometimes thought to be the most difficult chemistry experiment in college basketball, blending experienced seniors with talented freshmen. Maryland's reserve rookie point guard, John Gilchrist, who was all over the court for 10 rebounds, spoke convincingly of the guidance he had received from Maryland's four senior starters in how to stay on an even keel, and Drew Nicholas talked about late February as the most mentally challenging part of the season with the knowing wisdom of someone who's been there.
In short, the Maryland program seems to be clicking on all cylinders at the moment, as Williams and his staff have taken savvy steps to turn a decade-long run of tournament teams into a self-perpetuating cycle of success. The ACC's basketball center of gravity now tilts farther north than at any time in the league's history -- and phrases like "UCLA of the East" no longer seems like a sardonic joke with reference to Maryland basketball. Or to put it another way, what Carolina successfully did in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Maryland is doing right now.
As for the visitors, simply count February 22, 2003 as a nightmare from start to finish. Despite leaving the Watergate Hotel 15 minutes early because of the weather, the Tar Heels saw what is normally a 45 minute ride to College Park double into a 90 minute ordeal on account of torrential downpour and flooding conditions in metropolitan Washington.
Despite the late arrival, there were no obvious signs when the Heels took the court for warm-ups of being out of synch or unready to play. Indeed, on the first possession of the game, Carolina ran a very solid motion offense halfcourt possession, culminated by David Noel drilling a 3. Carolina played Maryland on pretty much even terms over the greater part of the first half, despite some sensational shooting by Steve Blake and Nicholas from the get-go. It took until the last two minutes of the half for Maryland to deliver the first lethal blow to the Tar Heel's psyche, a 7-0 run to push the lead from 38-30 to 45-30, a run that featured a missed UNC layup and a turnover by Raymond Felton when Damion Grant didn't expect his pass. Carolina (not hearing Matt Doherty yelling at them to start a motion possession) got the last basket of the half when Jawad Williams dumped the ball inside to Grant, but Maryland entered the locker with a full head of momentum.
Even so, Carolina came out with some conviction at the start of the half with two quick Rashad McCants layups, and later two minutes later a McCants dunk in transition to send Brendan Haywood and the rest of the small Carolina contingent into a brief frenzy. The dunk cut the score to 47-40, and it looked liked, just possibly, the game might be on.
Instead, it was soon game over. Maryland mounted a 15-4 run over the next six minutes, sparked by a difficult fall-away 3 pointer by Blake, and capped by a baseline jumper from reserve guard Andre Collins. From there it got positively embarrassing: reserve Jamar Smith finished an alley-oop with a spectacular one-handed dunk, and then the 5-9 Collins rebounded his own missed layup for a 3-point play to push the lead to 21 at 68-47 and prompt Doherty to substitute five new players.
Doherty said his message during the mass substitution was simply to ask his charges to "play this one out" with some effort and dignity. It's unlikely the third-year head coach will grade his team very highly on how they responded to that message, as Carolina was outscored 28-9 the rest of the way and Maryland continued to come up with, it seemed, every loose ball and 50-50 rebound. Melvin Scott, who helped keep UNC in it with a nice first half shooting display, had to drain a 25 foot jumper to cut the lead to the final margin of 40.
After the game, the Carolina contingent was understandably deflated and quiet. As Matt Doherty gathered his thoughts for the news conference, Dick Baddour stopped by for a consoling handshake and a pat on the back for his coach, followed by a private conversation. An equally disconsolate Raymond Felton was a shadow of his usual friendly self, telling reporters in a near-whisper that he had never lost a game like this at any level of basketball.
The record book will show Saturday was Carolina's worst ACC loss ever -- but, as Doherty correctly noted in the press conference, that fact simply cannot be allowed to interfere with or undermine Carolina's preparation for what can now be fairly labeled the biggest game of this season, at home to N.C. State on Tuesday night.
That won't be an easy task, psychologically or emotionally, for either the players or the coaches. But completing it successfully is the central challenge facing this fragile North Carolina team over the next 72 hours -- the hard work and sweat of a season hangs in the balance.
Thad Williamson is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html. Thad welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.