COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- There was a sense of desperation filling Cole Field House toward the end of the first half yesterday, a here-we-go-again feeling for most in the sellout crowd of 14,500 as well as for the Maryland Terrapins.
And, ever briefly, there was a sense of deju vu as the 14th-ranked Terrapins began to chip away at North Carolina's large lead and seemed on the verge of staging another improbable comeback. While the deficit never reached historic proportions, neither did the comeback.
After falling behind by 11 points at halftime, Maryland never got closer than five and wound up losing to the 12th-ranked, red-hot Tar Heels, 93-81. It was the seventh straight win overall and sixth straight in the Atlantic Coast Conference for North Carolina (19-6, 9-5).
With the defeat, its fifth in the last eight games, Maryland (20-7, 9-5) fell into a third-place tie with the Tar Heels. The Terrapins finish the regular season with two road games, at Duke on Thursday and at Virginia a week from today.
"The toughest thing for this team is to put aside the fact that we've won 20 games and do things that most people didn't think we were going to do," a dejected Maryland coach Gary Williams said in his office about an hour after the game. "We did that because we were hungry. We've got to stay hungry."
Or, perhaps, find their appetite for playing the kind of defense that carried the Terrapins to many of those victories. Though Maryland came out as efficient on offense as it has been in the last month -- hitting its first six shots and nine of its first 12 -- the defense rested.
Mostly, the Terrapins rested their vocal cords, not talking as the Tar Heels continually set screens inside for sophomore forward Antawn Jamison and senior center Serge Zwikker. Jamison scored 21 of his game-high 29 points in the first half, and Zwikker had 15 of his career-high 24 before the break.
"They set a lot of screens and we didn't communicate with each other," said sophomore center Obinna Ekezie, who often found himself unable to stop the 7-foot-3 Zwikker, who hit 10 of 14 shots on a variety of hooks, layups and pull-up baseline jumpers. "We paid more attention to the ball."
North Carolina merely paid attention. When they blew a 22-point lead to Maryland with a little more than 14 minutes left last month in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels lost their focus of getting the ball inside to Jamison. Yesterday, they simply kept the Terps off-balance by putting up an occasional three.
The result was 34-of-59 shooting from the field, including five of 10 on threes, the highest percentage (57.6) for the Tar Heels in the ACC this year. It was also the most points scored by Carolina in a league game, and most points -- by 13 -- Maryland has surrendered.
"We made some extra passes today, more than we usually do," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whose team racked up 26 assists, nine by freshman guard Ed Cota and seven by junior guard Shammond Williams. "The hardest thing to learn is shot selection, and this team has learned the hard way."
The Terrapins finished 30 of 64 overall, five of 13 on threes. While they placed six players in double figures for the first time in more than a year, it didn't seem to matter. On a day when he played his last home game and saw his number hung from the rafters, senior forward Keith Booth might have scored the quietest 20 points of his career.
"The answering machine was definitely on today -- every time we called, they answered," said sophomore guard Laron Profit.
It happened midway through the first half, after Maryland used the energy left over from the pre-game ceremony to jump out to a 21-16 lead. Sophomore forward Vince Carter came right back with a 23-footer to start a 7-0 run.
It happened late in the first half. After a three-pointer by sophomore guard Terrell Stokes pulled the Terrapins to within 33-31, the Tar Heels scored six straight points in a 15-6 run to close the half. North Carolina's 48-37 lead was nearly the same as it was last month (50-38).
And it happened a couple of times early in the second half. After Maryland cut its deficit to 57-52 on a three by Stokes, Zwikker scored on a 12-footer along the baseline. After a drive by Stokes made it 59-54, Jamison's three-point play gave the Tar Heels a little breathing room.
"They played really well," said Stokes, who played more aggressively on offense than he has in a while, finishing with 12 points and four assists. "Jamison. Zwikker. They ran their offense to perfection. When we got it down to five, they never panicked."
Asked if last month's game factored into yesterday's outcome, Smith said, "I think it was in the back of our minds."
There is something in the back of Maryland's collective mind: getting blown out. The Terrapins, who trailed by as many as 18 against the Tar Heels, are getting accustomed to coming back from double-digit losses.
Yesterday's was the third in the past two weeks, following a 12-point loss at Clemson on Feb. 8 and a 17-point defeat to Massachusetts in Worcester on Feb. 15.
But in those instances, Maryland played struggling teams the next time out. Now the Terrapins must go play Duke, a team even hotter than North Carolina.
"We just didn't have the intensity coming out today in the first half like we did in the second half," said Booth. "We've got to come out and play hard for 40 minutes like North Carolina did."
Like Maryland did earlier this season.
Before the Terrapins started losing their appetite on defense.
NOTES: The victory was the 870th for the legendary Smith, leaving him six shy of tying Adolph Rupp's all-time record. Booth made his 121st career start at Maryland, the most ever by a Terp.
Maryland doesn't retire jersey numbers, but honors players by hanging their jerseys in the rafters at Cole Field House. Keith Booth is the 11th Terp so honored. The list:
No. Player .......... Years
6 Louis Berger ..... 1929-32
25 Gene Shue ....... 1951-54
41 Len Elmore ...... 1971-74
54 Tom McMillen .... 1971-74
15 John Lucas ...... 1972-76
55 Albert King ..... 1977-81
52 Buck Williams ... 1978-81
34 Len Bias ........ 1982-86
42 Walt Williams ... 1988-92
32 Joe Smith ....... 1993-95
22 Keith Booth ..... 1993-97
............. Conference Overall
School .......... W-L ..... W-L
Duke ........... 11-3 .... 22-5
Wake Forest .... 10-4 .... 21-4
Maryland ........ 9-5 .... 20-7
N. Carolina ..... 9-5 .... 19-6
Clemson ......... 8-5 .... 20-6
Virginia ........ 6-9 .... 16-11
Florida St. ..... 4-9 .... 14-9
Georgia Tech .... 3-11 ... 9-15
N.C. State ...... 3-12 ... 11-13
N. Carolina 93, Maryland 81
N.C. State 72, Ga. Tech 51
+ Wake Forest 66, Virginia 60
Duke at UCLA, 2 p.m.
Fla. St. at Clemson, 4 p.m.
Pub Date: 2/23/97