COLLEGE PARK - North Carolina State has its most promising team since coach Herb Sendek took over in Raleigh six years ago, yet the Wolfpack still can't solve Maryland at Cole Field House.
For a while yesterday, the No. 3 Terps looked a little hung over from their dramatic, come-from-behind victory at Virginia three days earlier. But behind senior guard Juan Dixon, senior small forward Byron Mouton and a smothering defense, Maryland caught fire late in the first half, then took control over the final 10 minutes and dismissed North Carolina State, 89-73, before an announced sellout crowd of 14,500.
Dixon, matched up in an entertaining, one-on-one battle with Wolfpack senior Anthony Grundy, scored 16 of his game-high 27 points in the second half. Mouton scored 11 of his 13 points after halftime. And Maryland's inspired defense, which forced 21 turnovers and began turning the game in the Terps' favor before intermission, held the Wolfpack to 16 points over the game's final 10 minutes.
The victory, Maryland's fifth straight and 10th in its past 11 games, keeps the Terps (18-3, 8-1) tied with Duke in first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, and sends Maryland into a one-week break from competition in excellent shape.
The Terps are healthy, off to their best start against the ACC since former coach Lefty Driesell's 1979-80 team, and can match their best start ever under 13-year coach Gary Williams with a victory at North Carolina on Sunday. Maryland also ran its home record to 11-0 in its final season at Cole Field House, while Williams improved to 13-0 against North Carolina State (16-6, 5-4) at home.
"[N.C.] State is a very good team. They are definitely an NCAA [tournament] caliber team. I certainly expected a difficult game, especially after Thursday night. A lot of teams wouldn't have gotten back up to play in this game," Williams said.
"I thought our guys gradually got to the point where we had enough energy to play a team with the same energy as N.C. State. In the second half, we matched their intensity. Once we did that, we were OK. Our defense was really good in the second half. We didn't have any emotion for a while. We really got it back in the last 12 minutes."
The Terps had their share of obstacles, beginning with the quick game-day turnaround after the shocker in Charlottesville.
As is typical when they play the Wolfpack, they found themselves in a game filled with whistles. The big men from both squads battled foul trouble, and Maryland sophomore Chris Wilcox and senior center Lonny Baxter had problems getting into the flow, although Baxter (16 points, five rebounds) did hit double figures for the sixth straight game.
The game turned after Baxter went to the bench with his third foul with the Wolfpack in front, 57-55 and 10:10 left. That's when Dixon and Mouton began torching North Carolina State, and junior backup center Ryan Randle continued to do his thing by producing tremendous results with limited playing time.
The Terps outscored North Carolina State 34-16 from that point, with Dixon, Mouton and Randle accounting for all but six of Maryland's points. Randle scored all seven of his points during a six-minute span.
"We played better defense and started making shots down the stretch. We played great the last nine minutes of the second half, but we need to do that for 40 minutes," said Dixon, who, with a little help from point guard Steve Blake (12 points, six assists), held Grundy to six of his team-high 19 points in the second half.
"Our goal is not to have any letdown. You have to come out with fire every night."
The Terps were out of sync early, committing six of their 11 first-half turnovers in the opening nine minutes while falling behind the Wolfpack 20-12 with 11:22 left. After taking a 9-7 lead on a Baxter follow-up, Maryland went scoreless for nearly five minutes.
North Carolina State took advantage of Maryland's sloppy ball-handling by reeling off 11 unanswered points, as four different players scored. Josh Powell's layup put the Wolfpack in front 18-9 with 12 minutes left. Dixon then broke the drought with his first points, a three-pointer from the right wing with 11:40 left.
The Terps tied the score at 29 with 4:39 left with free-throw shooting and a full-court press that forced the Wolfpack into three consecutive turnovers. Maryland scored six straight points at the line, the last four from Drew Nicholas, to tie the game. After Marcus Melvin gave North Carolina State a 33-31 lead with 3:12 left on a 10-foot bank shot, Maryland came alive with a 10-5 run.
Dixon, relatively quiet up to that point, made the most noise during the run. First, with Grundy's hand in his face, Dixon buried a 22-footer from the left corner to give Maryland a 35-33 lead with 2:19 left. Then, he drew a Grundy foul with a great baseline drive, banked in a 12-footer, then completed a three-point play to make it 41-36 with 1:20 left.
The Terps took a 41-38 lead into halftime.
The players were relishing the chance to enjoy two days off, before resuming the stretch run.
"We're tired, so that's good," Williams said. "The one negative thing is we're playing well. You don't want to break that. But we need some rest. We're a very tired team."