CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Another day, another second-half stumble.
The best thing that can be said about their latest defeat is the Maryland Terrapins actually made progress. But taking small steps forward usually is not good enough against the top-ranked team in the nation, and it did not suffice yesterday against the poised and talented North Carolina Tar Heels.
Carolina took Maryland's best shot in the first half, then responded with a knockout blow that has become all too familiar to Terps fans. And when the Tar Heels had completed a 96-82 whipping before a national television audience and a sellout crowd of 21,750 at the Dean Smith Center, the 13th-ranked Terps were shaking their heads and asking the same question in unison.
Where is our defense?
It left after the first half, which has happened so often in this year of seemingly endless leaks for a team that had such high hopes.
Carolina laid a new low on Maryland yesterday by torching the Terps with the most torrid shooting they have permitted all season. The Tar Heels made 35 of 60 attempts for a 58.3 shooting percentage that is easily the highest allowed by this bewildered group.
"I can't figure out why we can't stop people. I'm brain-locked or something," said junior forward Byron Mouton. "I came into this season expecting us to do miracles. I never expected to have the type of season we're having. It's real tough."
The Tar Heels (21-2, 11-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), who have an 18-game winning streak for the first time since 1986, outclassed Maryland in businesslike fashion. They slashed through Maryland's defense in the half-court game and in transition. They beat the Terps' pressure by tirelessly finding the open man. And, oh, did the Tar Heels make their shots.
Forwards Jason Capel and Julius Peppers each recorded career highs with 27 and 18 points, respectively. Sophomore guard Joseph Forte did not even attempt a three-pointer for the first time in his already spectacular career, yet still dissected Maryland with brilliant passing to go with his 23 points, which included a 9-for-9 day at the free-throw line.
Forte scored six straight points to start the second half, turning a 43-42 halftime lead into a 49-42 Tar Heels edge. And the whole trio contributed heavily to a 19-7 Carolina run during the middle of the half that put Maryland in a 75-60 hole with 7:40 left. Reserve guard Max Owens delivered the daggers by making back-to-back threes to complete the run.
The Terps never got closer than nine points after that, mainly because they could not stop Carolina. The Tar Heels finished like the best team in the country by making eight straight free throws. They made 19 of 20 overall, after entering the game with a modest 63.7 percentage at the free-throw line.
"We didn't play defense. That's all there is to say," said Terps junior guard Juan Dixon, who scored 15 points, struggled again by making just six of 16 shots and rode the bench for the final two minutes. "If we play defense, we allow ourselves a chance to win this game. We won 25 games last year because we played good defense."
Maryland (15-8, 6-5) is a long way from 25 victories this time around. The Terps have lost four of five games for the first time since the end of the 1996-1997 season, have lost three straight on the road and are slipping steadily in the ACC standings. Maryland is now 1-6 against ranked teams.
Lost in another second-half fade, which featured more poor shooting from senior forward Terence Morris (12 points on 4-for-11 shooting), was the fact that Maryland showed renewed promise in other areas.
The Terps played their most aggressive game in two weeks. They took the ball at Carolina in the first half with authority and trapped the Heels effectively. A 22-7 Maryland run propelled the Terps to a 29-21 lead with 7:50 left in the half, their biggest lead of the day.
Maryland turned the ball over just eight times, matching the lowest number by a Tar Heels opponent this season. Junior center Lonny Baxter snapped out of a foul-marred funk by thoroughly outplaying 7-foot Brendan Haywood. Baxter avoided foul trouble and finished with a team-high 19 points and eight rebounds. Sophomore guard Drew Nicholas came off the bench and continued his recent surge by scoring 16 points.
The Tar Heels wobbled a bit while committing nine first-half turnovers, then pounced on Maryland. With Capel leading the way with a personal 11-point run, Carolina produced a 15-6 run to end the first half in front.
"You've got to play better drop-back defense and better transition defense if you want to beat good teams," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "[The Tar Heels] are a very veteran team. They know how to act as a No. 1 team. It's been done here before."
Maryland, which made just 17 of 42 shots in the second half to complement its porous defense, made one last, 6-0 run that cut Carolina's lead to 82-73 with 3:43 left. Baxter turned an offensive rebound into a four-foot put-back, then made a layup. Nicholas followed that with a steal and a layup.
But the Heels, with Forte leading the way as a ballhandler and foul shooter, answered with a 12-5 spurt that silenced the Terps.
"It's not over. We can create our own destiny," said Williams, who is looking forward to playing four of the final six regular-season games at Cole Field House, starting with Florida State on Wednesday. "I don't think about expectations until after the season."
Next for Terps
Opponent: Florida State
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
When: Wednesday, 9 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Records: Maryland 15-8, 6-5 ACC; Florida State 6-17, 1-9 ACC