COLLEGE PARK - It was exactly the type of Atlantic Coast Conference home opener the Maryland Terrapins anticipated against ninth-ranked North Carolina. Lots of scoring. A breakneck pace. Tension galore.
Last night at Comcast Center, before a roaring, packed house of 17,950, the Terps and the Tar Heels dished it out and took it and dished it out some more.
And after never having a lead in the first half, Maryland used its depth and outstanding showings from senior center Jamar Smith and sophomore point guard John Gilchrist to take control down the stretch and produce a 90-84 victory.
Smith scored 14 of his game-high 22 points in the second half. Gilchrist, locked in an entertaining battle with Carolina point guard Raymond Felton, scored 20. Sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley awakened from an ineffective first half to finish with 17 points. Freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe scored 11.
"At halftime I was all ready to be upset about not getting back on defense," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "Then I realized we were trying, but you can't duplicate in practice what Felton can do. How quick were they?"
Maryland (10-3, 1-1 ACC) showed remarkable composure on a night when it committed 22 turnovers. The Terps displayed their cool the most where they have struggled the most this year - at the free-throw line.
The Terps broke a 78-78 tie with 2:34 left when Smith made one of two free throws. From there, Maryland never trailed, as the Terps made 10 of their last 14 foul shots to seal a huge victory, their third against a ranked opponent.
Sophomore center Sean May led the Tar Heels (10-3, 1-2) with 18 points. Felton finished with 16 points. Forward Rashad McCants wound up scoring 15.
"There were points in the game when I was able to stick him [May] and other points when I didn't do a good job of it," said Smith, who also had nine rebounds. "I haven't felt like I've been playing my game for a good part of this season. Every home game is a must-win. This was a very big win."
It took the Terps nearly 25 minutes to get their first lead, and when sophomore guard Chris McCray completed a fast break with a baseline jam, Maryland had a 56-54 advantage with 15:43 left in the contest.
Over the next five minutes, the Terps, led by Smith, extended their lead to 69-61. Smith, who opened the second half with a four-point flurry, followed McCray's dunk with six straight Maryland points to give the Terps a 62-55 lead with 14:05 remaining.
After North Carolina cut the lead to 62-61 on layups by forward David Noel and May and two free throws by forward Jackie Manuel, Gilchrist and Caner-Medley led a 7-0 answer by Maryland that sent the home crowd into a state of delirium. Gilchrist made a 15-footer, Caner-Medley sank a three-pointer from the left wing, and Gilchrist converted two foul shots to make it 69-61 with 10:28 left.
Both teams figured to run the floor with abandon, and both teams opened with a dizzying pace, as Maryland and North Carolina traded baskets in the opening eight minutes, with the Tar Heels taking a 25-20 lead on 8-for-12 shooting.
Carolina junior Melvin Scott, a shooting guard from Baltimore, sparked the Tar Heels with eight points to push Carolina to the early advantage. His three-pointer broke a 7-7 tie with 17:30 left in the half, and his pull-up jumper finished a fast break on Carolina's next possession to make it 12-7 with 16:57 to go.
Scott was one of five different players who scored the first five baskets for the Tar Heels.
Maryland got a major boost from Gilchrist, who scored 13 points in the first half and sparked the Terps with seven points in the first five minutes. His three-pointer from the top of the key cut the Carolina lead to 12-10 with 16:09 left in the half. His eight-footer trimmed the lead to 18-12 five minutes into the half.
Smith got warmed up with back-to-back layups. His second answered the second three-pointer by Scott and pulled the Terps to within 23-18 with 13:20 left in the half.
But after Caner-Medley drove the lane for a layup to cut the margin to 25-20, the Tar Heels opened up a 29-20 cushion. Gilchrist blew a layup after stealing the ball near midcourt, and Maryland paid for it. McCants hit a 15-foot, baseline jumper. Then, after Maryland's eighth turnover, Noel's jam made it 29-20.
Maryland responded with a 10-4 run, led by Ibekwe, who made his second start in place of sophomore Travis Garrison and scored four points during the run. His first basket came on a spectacular tip-in. His second came by virtue of an offensive rebound and vicious slam, which Ibekwe negated by hanging on the rim and drawing a technical foul.
Carolina took advantage of that momentum swing by scoring seven unanswered points to take a 40-30 lead with 6:43 left in the half.
Maryland committed 13 turnovers and recorded just six assists in the opening half. It helped that the Terps shot the ball more efficiently than they have all year. The Terps converted 18 of 33 attempts from the floor, and after struggling mightily at times from the foul line this season, Maryland responded with a 10-for-13 showing from the line.
"Every time we step on the floor for a big game, we come ready to play," Gilchrist said. "That's something Maryland has prided itself on, no matter what the year is. There is no rebuilding year. We expect to win games. They were hurting our transition defense in the first half [Carolina led 49-47 at the half]. In the second half we were able to get back and slow them down."