COLLEGE PARK -- The No. 7 Maryland basketball team has gotten smaller.
Its goals have not.
Holding off No. 12 North Carolina and building momentum for the postseason are on the Terps' agenda when they meet the Tar Heels today at 4 p.m. at Cole Field House. Those objectives would be lofty enough under normal circumstances, and they become towering tasks minus a senior center who has started 105 games.
The contest between the top Duke-chasers in the Atlantic Coast Conference will be Maryland's first at home without Obinna Ekezie, the popular pivot man who ruptured his right Achilles' tendon Tuesday and underwent surgery Thursday.
"It's definitely a challenge, but I told the guys, 'Let's use this as a motivational tool,' " senior forward Laron Profit said.
"Obinna has been a big piece of what we've done the last three years, and he was a big piece of what we did this year. A lot of people are jumping off the bandwagon, saying, 'Let me get off now.' It's another thing we can use to prove to people that we're a good team."
"Well, we've got a young team," Profit said. "Nobody's over the hill. We're hungry, and that's the difference. Nobody on this team has won anything big."
Maryland is well on its way to its sixth straight NCAA bid, and its impressive resume includes three wins over Top 10 teams. The last came Jan. 13 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., when Ekezie scored all 19 of his points in the last 18 minutes of an 89-76 win over the then-No. 9 Tar Heels.
That was the pinnacle of a farewell season that bottomed out at practice Tuesday. Ekezie will be able to resume playing basketball in five or six months. He is resting at a sister's house in Greenbelt, and told coach Gary Williams yesterday afternoon that, if possible, he would attempt to make it to Cole today.
Sadness for Ekezie's plight was acknowledged and brief, as the Terps had to move on.
"We talked about it before the game," Williams said of Maryland's win at N.C. State on Wednesday night. "I told them that was the last time we were going to mention it."
After Terence Morris and Terrell Stokes led the Terps past the Wolfpack, Profit said it was the most emotional win Maryland had enjoyed since it beat North Carolina in overtime here last January. The Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 then, and it was Bill Guthridge's first loss as a head coach.
Second-place Maryland (21-4, 9-3) has one fewer ACC loss than North Carolina (19-6, 7-4).
"Our home court is great, but it doesn't help not having Obinna," Williams said. "Let's be realistic. Losing a guy 6-9, 260, who has played against a lot of great players, you don't replace that."
Maryland doesn't use its 3-2 zone often, but that defense was prominent in the last two victories over North Carolina. Williams will need that tactic and an assertive rebounding effort to combat 7-foot sophomore Brendan Haywood and 6-11 freshman Kris Lang.
The Tar Heels out-rebounded the Terps 38-29 a month ago. In the first half, Ekezie, Lonny Baxter and Mike Mardesich combined for nine personal fouls, one rebound and no points.
The situation was so desperate, Williams sent in Brian Watkins, a slender 6-9 forward who was usually part of the mop-up crew. He contributed three important minutes in the first half and got one minute of playing time in the next six games. Now Watkins is Williams' ninth man and the second front-court option off the bench.
"You say we're deep, " Profit said. "This is when you find out how deep you are."
North Carolina has had a week to prepare, and to resolve some health issues of its own.
Jason Capel, a freshman wing who started the first 18 games and slowed Steve Francis at the Smith Center, missed the last six games with mononucleosis. He returned to practice Tuesday and is expected to play. Point guard Ed Cota strained a calf muscle in the second half at Duke on Jan. 27 and missed the next game, a loss at Clemson.
Opponent: No. 12 North Carolina
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Time: 4 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Maryland by 8
Pub Date: 2/13/99