CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Maryland looked like a sure loser at halftime.
Three fouls on Obinna Ekezie. Three fouls on Mike Mardesich. Three fouls on Lonny Baxter. A 23-10 rebounding advantage for North Carolina.
If the Terps' comeback from a 22-point deficit at the Dean Smith Center two years ago was shocking, then last night's 89-76 victory certainly qualified as surprising, considering the way it transpired.
Coach Gary Williams prefers man-to-man defense, but Maryland won by playing zone. The Terps prefer to play up-tempo, but their foul trouble forced them to stretch possessions, shorten the game.
Williams outcoached Bill Guthridge. Seniors Ekezie, Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes atoned for their disappearing act against Duke. The fifth-ranked Terps produced probably their finest team victory of the season after trailing 43-42 at intermission.
"I thought Maryland coming in was a Final Four-type team," Guthridge said. "I'm convinced now after playing them."
The Terps beat the No. 9 team in the country on a night Steve Francis was their fifth-leading scorer, a night when they committed 14 first-half fouls to Carolina's four, a night when they were forced to play little-used Brian Watkins in the 17th minute.
Ekezie finished with 19 points after getting shut out in the first half. Profit scored a game-high 24 in a long-awaited big-game breakthrough. Stokes had 10 points, eight assists and zero turnovers.
"Our three seniors were tremendous," Williams said.
Williams wasn't bad himself.
The Terps had played zone only once against a ranked opponent -- "for about 30 seconds against Kentucky," Profit said. But they went to a 3-2 in the first half, and used it almost exclusively in the second.
"Sometimes you enter a game with a plan and coach it differently," Williams said. "That's as bad foul trouble as we've been in a long time. We had no choice but to go zone. But we figured they might figure it out at halftime. They had a chance to look at it in the first half."
It didn't matter.
"Their zone bothered us a lot," Guthridge said. "In the second half, we couldn't seem to get any penetration. We couldn't get the ball inside. That was the big difference in the game."
The truth is, zone might be the right defense to play against Carolina, regardless of the circumstances. Point guard Ed Cota was a dervish in the first half, unleashing 14 points and six assists. But he scored only three points in the second.
Cota is the Tar Heels' only quality ballhandler, and Guthridge played his top shooter, Max Owens, only nine minutes (Owens went 0-for-4). Led by Ekezie's 6-for-6, Maryland shot 58 percent in the second half. Carolina shot only 40 percent.
Williams took delight in praising his much-maligned half-court offense -- Terence Morris scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half, and Maryland pounded the ball inside to Ekezie relentlessly in the second.
The Terps committed only 11 turnovers to Carolina's 18.
They even out-rebounded Carolina after halftime, 19-15.
"I just tried to be aggressive," Ekezie said. "I knew I didn't play well in the first half. I didn't get a chance to play. I was in foul trouble the whole time. I felt I let my teammates down by not performing."
The referees officiated the first half as if it was sacrilegious for Carolina to lose on the day of Michael Jordan's retirement. But they evened things out in the second half, with their inconsistency making it appear as if they were auditioning for the NFL.
The Terps were coming off a 94-48 victory against North Carolina State in which they forced 31 turnovers. But last night was their first major victory on the road, at a time when a loss could have damaged their confidence.
This was Carolina at Carolina, and that still means something, even if the current UNC team is slow and inexperienced, and clearly suffering from the defections of Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison.
Final Four appearances are the ultimate measure of a program, and Carolina has 14 to Maryland's none. But how's this for progress? It no longer qualifies as a surprise when Maryland wins at Carolina.
The Terps' victory not only was their third in the last four years at the Smith Center, but also their fifth in the arena's 13-year history. No other team boasts such a record, not even Duke.
The 22-point comeback two years ago was the biggest ever against Carolina. The 13-point victory last night was the Terps' most lopsided over UNC since 1975.
ESPN's Dick Vitale bounced into the Maryland locker room afterward, telling a reporter interviewing Williams, "He can't coach! He didn't do anything!" then addressing the players and leaving them roaring with laughter.
The Terps looked like sure losers at halftime. They ended the night easy winners.
Any more of this, and they'll be declaring home-court advantage at the Smith Center.
Pub Date: 1/14/99