COLLEGE PARK, Md. — When North Carolina was a weaker team than it is now, when the Tar Heels werent as mentally tough or resilient, they might have reacted adversely to the pressure they experienced on Wednesday at Maryland.
UNC led throughout much of its 79-68 victory against the Terrapins, but there were stretches when the Tar Heels played poorly, and when Maryland attempted to seize control of a game it desperately needed to win to bolster its NCAA tournament hopes.
The Terrapins during the first half went on runs of 6-0 and 7-0, and during both of them the raucous crowd at the Comcast Center grew loud and frenzied before the Tar Heels quieted the arena. It was at its most deafening, though, with about six minutes to play in the second half.
In the span of about 30 seconds, Maryland cut UNCs 12-point lead to six, and the Tar Heels (22-8, 12-5) appeared flustered and panicked against the Terrapins full-court pressure defense. During those 30 seconds, Marcus Paige, UNCs freshman point guard, committed two turnovers, and Maryland (20-10, 8-9) took advantage of both.
Paige, though, might have made the most important play of the game after UNC coach Roy Williams called a timeout. With the shot clock running down, Paige found himself with the ball on the left side. It had been a difficult, confidence-busting stretch for him, but he released a 3-pointer and it fell through to push UNCs lead back to nine.
I was really shaken up for a while in the second half, said Paige, who scored nine points but committed eight turnovers. But my teammates still had a lot of confidence in me, and that (was) important to knock that down for them.
Paiges teammates could sense his struggles. The eight turnovers were a season high. But there was little time for head-hanging or moping not in the critical moments after Maryland had made it a six-point game.
Hes the point guard of our team, said P.J. Hairston, the sophomore forward who led UNC with 22 points. So hey, this sounds bad, but he has just has to suck it up and play.
After Paiges 3-pointer, UNC twice stopped Maryland from scoring. Then James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward, scored on a layup and was fouled. He made the free throw to stretch the Heels lead back to 12 points.
Williams, the UNC coach, said that sequence the one that began with Paiges 3 and ended with McAdoos three-point play was the most important of the game for his team. It was a stretch that personified the Heels toughness on Wednesday, and their ability to respond amid difficult circumstances.
They really have come a long way, Williams said of his players. Theyve bought into the sense of urgency. Theyve bought into the unselfishness, trying to do what we ask them to do, and they compete. Im really proud of them.
Williams praise was a contrast to how he criticized the Tar Heels after their sloppy victory at Clemson last week. Williams became irate during the second half of that game, when Clemson routinely beat the Tar Heels to loose balls and rebounds.
After the Tigers outrebounded UNC by 14 in the second half, Williams last week described his players as pansies. A week later those words were still fresh in the minds of the Tar Heels, who faced a formidable challenge against Maryland, which has been one of the best rebounding teams in the nation.
We just had to try to live on the boards, said Reggie Bullock, the junior guard who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. It was Bullocks third double-double in his past four games, and once again he was the Tar Heels leading rebounder.
Bullock and Hairston combined for 41 points and 20 rebounds. Williams in recent weeks have emphasized to both the importance of rebounding, and Williams said earlier this week that he asked Hairston to become a better rebounder.
Maryland scored 14 points off of offensive rebounds in the first half, but only six after halftime.
The Tar Heels, faced with a significant size disadvantage, clogged the lane on the interior, and dared Maryland to shoot. The strategy worked in large part because of the Terrapins inability to make 3-pointers. They missed 20 of their 23 3-point attempts, and Maryland at times attempted to go small to match up more effectively with UNC.
Williams afterward said he didnt know if the Tar Heels, who won their sixth consecutive game, are peaking at the right time. He reminded reporters, though, that he predicted his team would improve as the season progressed, and the Heels have proven him correct.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter