Terps' ACC finish starts with Tar Heels


COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins look at the big picture and like what they see.

With four games left in its regular season, Maryland is locked in a four-way battle for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, tied with Duke in second place, trailing front-running Wake Forest by a half game and leading fourth-place North Carolina State by a half game.

By winning out over the next two weeks, the No. 13 Terps could secure one of the top two seeds in the ACC tournament. With a strong showing in Greensboro, N.C., - say, by at least reaching the title game - the defending NCAA champions could possibly gain a top three seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Terps (16-7, 8-4) look at the smaller picture and see an improved North Carolina team that comes to Comcast Center today possibly one key player stronger and must not be allowed to blunt Maryland's late-season momentum.

Make no mistake. Even after their comeback fell short in Wednesday's 75-70 loss at No. 8 Duke, the Terps feel they are on a roll at the right time, having won two of their past three, including a 23-point pasting of Wake Forest.

"I hope I'm not getting old, but that's as good as I've ever felt after a loss," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "We didn't get the win, but we put ourselves in position to win. The way we played down there was incredible. That was the toughest game Duke has had at home.

"I feel really good. I think we're mentally tough. I think we're capable. I think this team can play in a one-game situation with anybody. But if you look at the schedule, you just go game to game. You just worry about North Carolina."

Maryland is playing its third game in six days, and the Terps will have another quick turnaround into Senior Night in their home finale against Clemson on Tuesday, before going on the road for back-to-back Sundays against N.C. State and Virginia.

The Terps should not be lacking energy today. For starters, Maryland is eager to re-establish home-court advantage. Road teams are 12-40 in conference play, and the Tar Heels (14-11, 4-7) have lost six of seven ACC games away from home.

With a victory, the Terps can do something no Maryland team has done since the Great Depression - beat Carolina four times in a row. The Terps last did it between 1930 and 1932 with a five-game streak.

By completing their second straight regular-season sweep of the Tar Heels - whom Maryland whipped, 81-66, in Chapel Hill on Jan. 22 - Williams would earn his 498th career victory and would move into fifth place all time with 123 ACC wins by passing former Terps coach Lefty Driesell.

"You don't want to play your best basketball in January. You want to play your best in February and March," Terps senior forward Tahj Holden said. "We're pretty confident. We're playing good basketball. We're feeling pretty good about our situation."

Maryland would like to duplicate its form in Chapel Hill by wearing out the inexperienced, smaller Tar Heels inside and by limiting the dribble penetration of freshman point guard Raymond Felton. Except for a 26-point effort by freshman guard Rashad McCants, Carolina could not sustain a steady offensive flow.

The interior could be rougher today, if the Tar Heels welcome back 6-foot-9 freshman center Sean May, who was off to a terrific start before suffering a broken foot last month.

May, who has missed the past 15 games, has been practicing with the team this week and could see action. Before he went down, May was averaging 12.1 points, a team-high 8.6 rebounds and had led Carolina to a 7-2 start that included victories over Kansas and Stanford.

The Terps hope their pressure defense will disrupt Carolina the same way it kept Duke from pulling away after taking a 10-point lead late in the second half on Wednesday.

Keeping McCants and sophomore forward Jawad Williams (14.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg) off the offensive boards will be high on Maryland's priority list. So will getting senior center Ryan Randle and Holden - coming off a career-high 18-point night at Duke - into the attack on the blocks.

In the backcourt, senior guard Drew Nicholas is looking to rebound from a career-low eight points in Durham. He took only two shots in the second half and missed two big free throws down the stretch.

Steve Blake, who leads the league with seven assists a game, has averaged 14 points in his past five games and is shooting 41.2 percent from three-point range, is playing perhaps his best basketball of the season.

"I feel fast right now," said Blake, who will start his school-record 129th game. "I need to play at the top of my game. I want to put the pressure on myself. I'm trying to play the best I can, trying to be aggressive, doing everything I can to make it work."

Terps today

Matchup:North Carolina (14-11) at No. 13 Maryland (16-7)

Site:Comcast Center, College Park

Time:2 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line:Maryland by 13

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