CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Maryland has been desperately striving all season for the sort of standout, ego-boosting win that might begin to brighten a mostly gray season falling short of expectations.
The Terps entered Tuesday night's game believing there could be no better occasion than in their farewell to the proud Dean Smith Center, a light-blue nightmare for visitors in which Maryland had lost seven of its previous eight games.
But rather than securing a foothold on the season, the foul-hindered Terps slipped again on the road, losing 75-63 to North Carolina.
Although it mounted several runs, Maryland could never quite overcome a miserable start after which it trailed 19-3.
“We couldn't afford a bad start and we had one,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “But after that I thought we really tried hard.”
Maryland (13-10, 5-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) got into early foul trouble trying to keep the Tar Heels (15-7, 5-4) off the boards and defend forward James Michael McAdoo, who converted his first four field goal attempts and finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.
North Carolina, which won its fourth straight game, was led by Marcus Paige's 25 points. Paige converted a four-point play — hitting a 3-pointer and a foul shot — in the second half to extend North Carolina's lead to 58-47 with 9:03 left. When the Terps closed to 58-52, it was Paige who converted an acrobatic runner in the lane.
“Paige was just too good,” Turgeon said.
Maryland was led by Dez Wells, who scored 18 points but also had seven turnovers.
The 6-foot-9 McAdoo posed a matchup problem for the Terps early on. His hard dunk, off a lob pass from Paige, raised the already-soaring decibel level early in the second half.
Five Terps collected four fouls apiece and Charles Mitchell (five points, 13 rebounds) fouled out.
“We had unbelievable foul trouble all night,” Turgeon said. “[The Tar Heels] are pretty athletic, Carolina's pretty fast. It's kind of hard to simulate that. Sometimes [foul trouble] is life on the road too.”
Said Mitchell: “We committed some dumb fouls and some fouls we thought wasn't fouls. We're on the road. You always get some bad calls. You've just got to play through it. You can't get down.”
The only silver lining for all of Maryland's fouls was that North Carolina — and McAdoo in particular – often struggled from the free-throw line. The crowd murmured audibly when McAdoo — a 53-percent free-throw shooter — would miss from the line.
The game marked the beginning of a rugged, four-game stretch in which the Terps will host Florida State — which routed them last month — and play on the road against ranked teams from Virginia and Duke.
Maryland is 2-5 on the road. For three years, Turgeon has sought to develop a tougher team away from home. The Terps won two ACC road games last year and one the year before.
It was the last regular-season conference game against the Tar Heels for Maryland. Maryland and North Carolina were founding members of the ACC and members of the Southern Conference before that. They have played 179 times, with the Tar Heels holding a 122-57 advantage.
The Terps didn't score until Evan Smotrycz (14 points) converted a 3-pointer three minutes and 16 seconds into the game. They trailed 12-3.
Mitchell attributed the early difficulties to “coming out on our tiptoes and not playing aggressive basketball. I think we stayed poised and tried to fight our way back into the game.”
North Carolina's lead became 19-3 before the Terps answered with a 16-3 run to pull to within 22-19.
“You have to congratulate Maryland because they kept playing basketball,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I thought that was the whole key to the game was that we never got frustrated and kept answering their runs.”
The first half ended with Turgeon crossing onto the court and gesturing frantically for Seth Allen to get back more quickly on defense.
Mitchell, a sophomore, got his first start of the season for the Terps. His first shot attempt was an airball and his second shot was blocked. But after missing his third attempt, he converted a putback and foul shot to trim North Carolina's lead to 22-16.
“No one likes to lose, obviously,” Smotrycz said. “We felt like we were right there the whole game. We played hard.”