COLLEGE PARK -- Gary Williams said from Day One that this is the most athletic basketball team he has ever had at Maryland, and yesterday it might have enjoyed its finest 40 minutes of flight.
The No. 7 Terps grounded No. 12 North Carolina, 81-64, before a sellout crowd of 14,500 at Cole Field House, where the lumbering Tar Heels were unable to cope with Maryland's quickness.
The Terps (22-4, 10-3) completed a stressful five days with a resounding reminder that they are the second-best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Williams doesn't have center Obinna Ekezie anymore, but he didn't have to fall back on his 3-2 zone, as the Terps went man-to-man and delivered another inspired defensive effort.
North Carolina (19-7, 7-5) had 25 turnovers, its most in more than two years. The Tar Heels attempted 52 shots, and more than a quarter of them were returned to sender, as the Terps registered a season-high 14 blocks.
"Our help defense today was incredible," Williams said. "When one guy got in trouble, it seemed like we always had another guy there to make it a tough shot. When you have that kind of help, a team isn't going to shoot well against you."
That defensive resolve has been there all season.
Maryland's field-goal percentage defense is .386, the program's stingiest figure since 1961. Full-court pressure and half-court traps have withered all but a few teams, and yesterday an eight-man rotation more than made up for the absence of Ekezie, the senior center whose career ended last Tuesday with an Achilles' tendon injury.
Ekezie, who underwent surgery Thursday, continued to rest at a sister's home in Greenbelt yesterday.
If he watched the telecast, he saw Terence Morris, Lonny Baxter and Laron Profit combine for 12 blocks. He saw Steve Francis make five steals. He also saw Terrell Stokes put a roadblock in Ed Cota's way, as North Carolina's premier point guard was limited to four assists and five points, none in the second half.
It came four days after Stokes shut down ACC Player of the Week Justin Gainey in an emotional win at N.C. State, when the Terps traveled without Ekezie, then held the Wolfpack to the worst shooting game in its history.
"Terrell didn't score today, but he did a terrific job," Williams said. "He's been a fantastic leader for this team. All through December and January, all people wanted to talk about was who was going to step up as the leader. He's done a great job, especially without Obinna."
Maryland made 50 percent of its shots -- No. 1 Duke is the only other team to break even from the field against North Carolina this season -- as the Terps were a step ahead at the other end, too.
"I know a lot of people wondered how we were going to respond, and we wanted to send a message without Obinna," Profit said. "We wanted to be aggressive from the opening tip."
Seven North Carolina turnovers in the first five minutes qualifies as Maryland assertion.
A steal and follow by Baxter, who made his third straight start at center, got the Terps a 14-4 lead. Trying to protect his freshman center, Williams got a technical from Michael Kitts, some 70 feet away, during a cold spell that saw Maryland fall behind 26-25.
A 12-2 run put the Terps on top at 37-28, and the Tar Heels never had another shot at the lead. Morris made several big blocks during that run, while North Carolina was dragged down by Brendan Haywood's turned ankle and a technical on Brian Bersticker.
Francis had a game-high 22 points, and was a man possessed during a three-possession stretch that lasted 67 seconds in the second half. He jammed in a Profit miss; came off a screen for a three-pointer that got the Terps' their first 10-point lead at 63-53; then put back his own miss among the taller Tar Heels.
Baxter then repelled a Kris Lang dunk attempt. Stokes raced up court and missed an open finger roll. Morris couldn't convert either of his second chances, but North Carolina was done. After getting beat up court and to the ball, senior Ademola Okulaja exploded at his teammates.
"It was like, 'Let's go out there and see what happens," Okulaja said. "You can't do that against Maryland. You can't do that at Maryland. And you can't do that with 25 turnovers."
Morris, who had 14 points and nine rebounds, admitted that "we're a quicker team with Obinna out."
Stokes, who had nine assists to one turnover, said that "it felt like November, Puerto Rico, the way we were flying around."
Profit, who chipped in 15 points, said "the difference is, this is February, and teams are going to respond," but North Carolina couldn't.
It was the Terps' first sweep of the Tar Heels since 1990, and the first time North Carolina had lost a season series in the ACC since 1993-94. It was also Maryland's most lopsided win over North Carolina since 1975, and the Terps earned a week off before they go to Georgia Tech next Sunday.
"I thought coming in that they were a national championship caliber team," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said of Maryland. "They didn't do anything to make me change my mind."
School Conference W-L Overall W-L
Duke 13-0 25-1
Maryland 10-3 22-4
N. Carolina 7-5 19-7
Florida State 5-6 12-11
N.C. State 5-7 15-9
Georgia Tech 5-7 14-10
Wake Forest 4-8 13-11
Virginia 3-9 13-12
Clemson 2-9 13-11
Maryland 81, N. Carolina 64
Duke 102, Wake Forest 71
Today's games Ga. Tech at Louisville, 1: 30
Florida State at Clemson, 4 N.C. State at Virginia, 4
Next for Terps
Opponent: Georgia Tech
Site: Alexander Memorial Coliseum, Atlanta
When: Next Sunday, 1: 30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Pub Date: 2/14/99