COLLEGE PARK -- The Maryland Terrapins defined themselves as one of the nation's most surprising teams when they came from 22 points down to beat North Carolina on the road in early January.
A decisive loss to the Tar Heels in the rematch yesterday at Cole Field House also defined the Terps as they struggle to finish a regular season that can't end soon enough.
We can say with certainty now that the Terps are a good team, but not a great team.
A team with many assets, but also many limitations.
The positive things that were said about them when they were 17-2 and ranked No. 5 in the country are still true; they play harder, pass better and work together better than recent Maryland teams.
But they're at a more appropriate level ranked where they are now, in the second tier of the Top 25.
It's no crime to land there, understand. With 20 wins and a winning record in the ACC, the Terps are still headed for a relatively high seed in the NCAA tournament.
Regardless of what they do -- or don't do -- the rest of the season, they can savor the joy of accomplishing more than anyone expected.
But their limitations are becoming increasingly obvious, and relevant, as March nears and the best teams round into shape for the tournament.
Carolina, playing brilliantly, illuminated all of those limitations yesterday in front of a full house of often-quiet Maryland fans.
Sophomore center Obinna Ekezie is still a work in progress; as improved as he is from a year ago, he is still prone to mistakes of inexperience, such as putting the ball on the floor in traffic.
Ekezie is incapable of rising up to dominate a game, as Carolina's clunky Serge Zwikker did yesterday.
Sophomore forward Laron Profit also is still a work in progress. As flashy and exciting as he is, he is prone to disappearing for long stretches.
PTC Profit is the same age as Carolina's Antawn Jamison, but smaller and less dominating.
What other problems are there? The Terps' leading scorer, Keith Booth, is an undersized forward who struggles just to get shots off. Terrell Stokes is a solid playmaker at point guard, but not a scoring threat. Sarunas Jasikevicius is erratic. Only one reserve, Rodney Elliott, is a threat to score.
Dependent on forcing a high-tempo game, the Terps are in trouble when their opponent handles their pressure defense as flawlessly as Carolina did yesterday.
These shortcomings matter more and more as the season winds down and the good teams heat up.
Carolina clearly is one of those "good" teams. After looking lost as recently as three weeks ago with a 3-5 record in ACC play and 12-6 overall, the Tar Heels won their seventh straight yesterday.
Maybe it's redundant to say that they're well-coached on a day when Dean Smith won his 870th, six behind Adolph Rupp's all-time record for wins, but the Heels were a purist's delight yesterday.
They passed superbly, chose excellent shots and repeatedly took advantage of size mismatches. Jamison, who scored 29 points, always seemed to catch the ball coming off a screen and zooming to the basket. Zwikker, hardly a natural, never tried to do more than he was capable of doing.
"We aren't that good yet, but we're getting better," Smith said.
Maryland is getting worse, with five losses in eight games.
Granted, losses are inevitable in the ACC, and the Terps have accumulated three recently to teams ranked second, 10th and 12th in the nation.
"We have played some great teams lately," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "You have to keep everything in perspective. Where we came from. Three months ago, no one would have thought we could win this game."
True. But anyone can see that something has gone wrong, like a pilot light going out. Even Williams, who has been unfailingly optimistic, sounded disappointed yesterday.
"When we were winning those games [early in the season], we were hungry," he said, "but now we're not hungry."
Yesterday, the Terps were soft on defense and often lazy on offense, settling for poor-percentage shots.
"We didn't play with the intensity we needed," Williams said. "We were slow. We didn't step up."
More strong words.
The locker room was quiet after the game as the players struggled for answers.
"Every time I put my finger on what's wrong, another hole in the wall appears," Profit said. "I don't really know what to say."
There isn't time to say much. The Terps have two regular-season games left, at Duke and at Virginia. Neither will be easy.
Somehow, some way, they need to recapture their hunger and magic from earlier in the season.
Williams needs to re-ignite their pilot light.
Yes, they'll still go down as a success story, regardless of what happens the rest of the way.
But how successful?
Pub Date: 2/23/97