"We really focused ourselves in right then," Eric Montross explained. "I hate to say it, but we probably realized it was crunch time. I wish we could play like that all the time."
Protests from coach Dean Smith to the contrary, there are days when the defending national champions simply need to shift into another gear to pull away from an opponent, even one as worthy as the Terps were yesterday at Cole Field House. Even when its top scorer keeps his warm-ups on for the entire 40 minutes, North Carolina has too much talent and depth for most challengers.
The Maryland game was North Carolina's third straight without Donald Williams, the junior guard who was named the Most Outstanding Player in last season's Final Four, when his perimeter scoring lifted the Tar Heels to their fourth NCAA championship.
Williams, who is averaging 20.6 points on 52.4 percent shooting -- extraordinarily high for a jump shooter -- is nursing tendinitis in his left foot. He said the decision to remain inactive was made after warming up.
The Tar Heels' perimeter game took an earlier blow on the second day of practice, when senior forward Brian Reese sprained an ankle. Reese said he feels "80 percent," and with him struggling and Williams out, North Carolina has to look elsewhere for points.
Down the stretch yesterday, they came from point guard Derrick Phelps, who had two of his five baskets in the decisive 10-2
stretch. He had 13 points, six above his average, and current backcourt mate Dante Calabria had 14, sharing Tar Heels honors with senior center Montross.
"Dante [Calabria] can shoot just as well as Donald [Williams]," Phelps said, "but Donald has this status as a great three-point shooter. Look, we just had a bad shooting night."
Actually, the Tar Heels made 51.6 percent of their shots, above their 51.2 seasonal rate. Defensively, their zone limited Maryland to a season-low 38.5 percent, but it wasn't enough to satisfy Smith, who only once in North Carolina's past 32 games has had to stomach an opponent making 50 percent from the field.
"That was our weakest defensive effort since the Preseason NIT," said Smith, who could find flaws in a shutout. "We have some weaknesses."
Smith, who notched his 786th career win, leaving him an even 100 behind Adolph Rupp's record, knew in the preseason he had an enviable challenge in meshing the highly touted freshman trio of center Rasheed Wallace, forward Jerry Stackhouse and guard Jeff McInnis in with the Tar Heels' returnees, among them four starters and several worthy reserves.
As high as the expectations are, however, they aren't affecting North Carolina, which is used to having its name highlighted on opponents' schedules.
"It's my experience that people always come after North Carolina, maybe even more so this year because we're defending champs," Montross said. "As much as you like to remember last year, you have to put it out of your mind. This is a totally different team, with a different chemistry."
The results, however, are familiar. The Tar Heels (12-1) surrendered their No. 1 ranking in November when they lost to Massachusetts in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT. They've settled into the No. 2 spot behind Arkansas, but figure to move up with the Razorbacks losing to Alabama yesterday.