COLLEGE PARK — Considering the shiny new white uniforms and the extreme weather that never quite materialized, Maryland dubbed Wednesday night's game against North Carolina a “White Out” for its students and fans who braved the elements to come to Comcast Center.
The same might now be said for Maryland's NCAA tournament chances — likely erased unless Mark Turgeon's team can win next week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
In a game the young Terps needed just to remain in — or even get into — the conversation for being on the NCAA tournament bubble, Maryland let North Carolina take control late in the first half and lost, 79-68, before a sellout crowd of 17,950.
Turgeon felt that the Terps (20-10, 8-9 ACC) lost the game in the last 3 ½ minutes of the first half and the first 4 ½ minutes of the second half. North Carolina closed the opening half on a 10-0 run to erase what had been a three-point Maryland lead and then pushed its lead to 13.
“From up one to down 13. We just didn't play very smart during that stretch,” Turgeon said. “That said, North Carolina was really good during that stretch… It could have been tied or down two at the half. Instead, it was seven. That's big against good teams. That's part of the process, I guess.”
Trailing by as many as 16 with a little over 12 minutes left in the second half, the Terps cut their deficit to six, 63-57, with a little over six minutes remaining. But North Carolina freshman guard Marcus Paige hit a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left on the shot clock on its next possession, and Maryland never threatened again.
“We've been playing behind all year, so that's nothing new to us,” said sophomore swingman Dez Wells, who led the Terps with 18 points. “We cut it to six and we had a chance to get a really, really good possession defensively, [but] we didn't get a stop that we needed. That really hurt us, but that being said, we gave really good effort and I'm really proud of my guys.”
Said Turgeon: “We got down, we fought back, cut it to six and had two bad defensive possessions in a row and they went back up 11. It's disappointing. I'm just disappointed. I wanted to be better tonight and we weren't. I thought the crowd was great again. They're good. Carolina played well.”
The Tar Heels (22-8, 12-5), winners in 12 of their last 15 games, were led by sophomore forward P.J. Hairston, who bulled his way for a game-high 22 points and eight rebounds. The Terps did a good job in the first half on sophomore guard Reggie Bullock, who scored 14 of his 19 points after halftime. Bullock also had a game-high 12 rebounds and three steals.
The Terps also lost because they missed 20 of 23 attempts from 3-point range, while the Tar Heels hit 10 of 24. The Terps shot 27-of-63 overall, including 0-for-5 on 3-point shots by Logan Aronhalt, who along with James Padgett (9 points, seven rebounds) was honored on Senior Night. Sophomore guard Nick Faust (City) scored 16 points.
One more reason why Maryland faltered: after a couple of early reverse dunks, sophomore center Alex Len disappeared again while playing in front of a number of NBA scouts. Len, still considered a lottery pick by most of them, finished with eight points, seven rebounds and no blocked shots. He scored his last basket with nearly 17 minutes left.
When a reporter mentioned to Turgeon that Len got off to a good start, Turgeon quickly stopped him.
“Good start to you, maybe not a good start to me, OK?” Turgeon said, obviously frustrated with his 7-foot-1 center. “We got him a wide-open lob and then he had two pick up loose ball dunks. When we threw him the ball, not much happened.”
Said Len: “They were double-teaming and I couldn't play one-on-one, so I was kicking back [passes]. It was good for us getting open shots but we weren't making them.”
The Terps finish the regular season Sunday at Virginia. While a road victory will certainly help Maryland's resume, it now seems likely that the Terps will have to run the table in Greensboro, N.C., next week in order to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Asked if he thought that an automatic bid is the only way for Maryland to make the tournament, Wells said, “I feel like we have to do really good [in Greensboro]. I don't want to put any pressure by saying that on my team. We all know that. Just take it one game at a time.”
Said Faust: “I hope we win the ACC tournament.”