COLLEGE PARK -- For different reasons, Maryland and North Carolina were the surprise teams earlier this season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And because of it they will come into today's late-season showdown from opposite directions.
Since winning six of their first seven ACC games, the 14th-ranked Terrapins have been at or near the top of the league for most of the season. After starting 0-3 for the first time in school history, the Tar Heels have made a slow, steady climb back from the bottom.
When they meet this afternoon at Cole Field House, it will be on nearly equal footing. After its remarkable start, Maryland (20-6, 9-4) has rejoined reality. After its horrible start, North Carolina (18-6, 8-5) is once again a factor, ranked 12th in the nation.
"When they were 0-3, everyone was kind of writing them off," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "But you don't want to ever write off a Dean Smith team."
A week ago, there were some who were beginning to feel that way about the Terrapins. Even Williams questioned the emotional state of his team after it had been blown out by Massachusetts, 78-61, in Worcester, Mass., a week ago today.
But a 76-68 victory over Georgia Tech on Wednesday night in Atlanta helped stop the bleeding from a recent stretch that included four defeats in six games. Even more significantly, it helped put the Terrapins into a tie for second in the ACC with fourth-ranked Wake Forest.
"The second half of that game, we got back to where we have to be emotionally," Williams said. "We felt like we were not going to lose the game."
A win this afternoon over the Tar Heels would leave Maryland only a game behind first-place Duke going into Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday night. It also would solidify a spot for the Terrapins among the top 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Williams knows it won't be easy. He not only is concerned with North Carolina's momentum -- the Tar Heels have won six straight, including an impressive 74-60 victory over the suddenly struggling Demon Deacons on Wednesday night in Chapel Hill -- but its memory of Maryland's 85-75 comeback win Jan. 8 at the Smith Center.
"You're not going to play harder because of it, but it was unusual, so you remember it," Williams said of a game that was the greatest comeback in Maryland history and the greatest collapse in North Carolina history. "From our perspective, we were not very happy the way we played the first 20 or 25 minutes. There are some things we remember, too."
Though the comeback from a 22-point deficit in the last 14: 24 of the game seemed to take on a life of its own, North Carolina isn't motivated by revenge.
"Revenge is not a factor," said sophomore forward Antawn Jamison, who dominated the first half of that game and didn't see the ball much down the stretch. "We just simply continue to play well. Of course we'll remember losing a 22-point lead. But we're more concerned about the game we have to play [today]."
It will be a different North Carolina team this time. The Tar Heels will have sophomore swingman Vince Carter, who sat out the first game with a hip pointer. They also will have more stability in the backcourt, with freshman point guard Ed Cota seemingly more comfortable coming off the bench.
"He [Carter] gives them another dimension, another good athlete who can score," said Maryland sophomore Laron Profit, who will be responsible for stopping Carter today.
Asked what the difference has been the past three weeks, Carter said, "Concentration and intensity, just everybody stepping up their games. We were taking some things for granted. Once we started winning, we gained some confidence."
It can be said that those same ingredients had been missing during Maryland's recent slide. But after bottoming out emotionally with the loss to the Minutemen, the Terrapins seemed to get it back, at least in stretches, against the Yellow Jackets.
They know a more consistent performance will be needed today -- and for the rest of the season.
"Our defense was better [against Georgia Tech] than it has been," said junior guard Matt Kovarik, who sparked Maryland's second-half run Wednesday night. "When we don't play well, we're back on our heels defensively and it transfers to our offense."
The Tar Heels are no longer back on theirs.
And Maryland, coming from the opposite direction, had better be ready.
No. 12 N. Carolina (18-6, 8-5) at No. 14 Maryland (20-6, 9-4)
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Time: 4 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 54, 9/WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
Booth's jersey to hang next to Smith's.7c
Pub Date: 2/22/97