CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Another terrible start followed by another inspiring comeback bid ended in yet another defeat that left the Maryland Terrapins shaking their heads yesterday over lessons they apparently still have not learned.
For the record, Maryland's valiant second-half rally against the No. 14 North Carolina men's basketball team went belly-up when Tar Heels sophomore Rashad McCants hit back-to-back three-point baskets in crunch time to push Carolina to a 97-86 victory before 21,750 at sold-out Smith Center.
McCants, who kept his recent scoring streak alive with a game-high 25 points, got a kind roll on the three-pointer that blunted Maryland's late charge and gave the Tar Heels an 85-79 lead with 4:28 left. McCants got another fortuitous bounce when he scooped up a loose ball on a pass that was tipped by Maryland center Jamar Smith and, with the shot clock winding down, banked in a three to make it 92-83 with 2:03 left.
Truth be told, the Terps (13-8, 4-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) are sitting in seventh place in the conference today because they inexplicably showed up after a one-week layoff and sleep-walked their way through a first half that might have been the season's 20-minute low point.
En route to giving up the most points it has allowed since surrendering 99 at Virginia in a loss more than three years ago, Maryland flopped in every way while falling behind 55-35 at halftime.
That marked the most points the Terps have permitted in a half this season as well as their largest deficit at the break. It drew a heated response from coach Gary Williams in the locker room at halftime.
And it put Maryland in too deep of a hole, which only added more pain to its fierce awakening in the second half, when the Terps trapped and pressed their way back into contention and nearly stole the game from the wobbly, sloppy Tar Heels (15-7, 5-6).
"I'm not saying we should come in here and beat Carolina, but we should play better than that," Williams said of Maryland's first-half display, which featured 12-for-40 shooting (30 percent) and lots of laziness in the paint, especially on defense.
"They're all intensity things. They're not X's and O's. We get young sometimes, getting ready to play. That was the first time in a long time we've played like that. If you're not willing to play hard, you're not going to win many games at this level. That's not us."
Rebounding and defense have become Maryland's calling cards, and neither made an appearance in the early going. Four Carolina players reached double figures in scoring by halftime.
The Tar Heels, who also got 23 points from junior forward Jawad Williams -- he made 13 of Carolina's 36 free throws -- scored inside at will early and took the fight to Maryland by making 17 of 23 free throws in the half. Carolina took just six three-point shots and made only two of them while building its halftime cushion.
Even junior reserve guard Jackie Manuel (14 points), who entered the game averaging 6.5 points, had driven his way to 12 first-half points, outscoring every Terp in the process at that point. Gary Williams was not pleased, and he unloaded on his team after they had departed the court.
"It wasn't a discussion. It was a one-way conversation about how we represent a great program that won a national championship two years ago," said Williams, who lost for the first time in four tries against Tar Heels coach Roy Williams. "That's not right, what went on in the first half."
Maryland sophomore guard Chris McCray, who matched his career high with 16 points and led the Terps in scoring for the first time, said: "That's the problem with this team. We can't get ourselves up at the start. By the time we dig ourselves too big of a hole, it's too late to come back against a great team."
But Maryland has not lost easily all season, and yesterday was no different. Down 67-48 with 15 minutes left, Maryland staged a 31-15 run over a 10-minute period to cut the margin to 82-79 with 4:53 left on the only three-point basket by sophomore point guard John Gil- christ (12 points, eight assists).
The Terps, who chose not to press Carolina much in the first half, gambled after halftime and nearly pulled off a stunning comeback. The Tar Heels crumbled at times in the face of Maryland's pressure, committing 22 turnovers.
During the Terps' comeback, Carolina missed layups, rushed shots and even saw McCants miss a breakaway dunk, which infuriated Roy Williams.
"Do you know why they don't give coaches guns? Watch us play," the Carolina coach said. "It was an ugly performance. Basically, anybody that has tried to press us had opened up the court [for our shooters]. Today [Maryland] got into the half-court trap with us, and we'll probably see that some more."
In the end, Carolina persevered inside and at the foul line, where it converted 36 of 50 free throws, got workmanlike performances from Jawad Williams and sophomore center Sean May (14 points, 12 rebounds) and overcame a game in which sophomore point guard Raymond Felton (three points) failed to make a basket for the first time in his career.
After allowing a season-high 54.9 percent shooting to the Tar Heels, after watching them make 58.1 percent of their attempts in that nightmarish first half, all Maryland could do was look forward to making a dent in the ACC down the stretch by playing four of their final six games at home.
"Hopefully, [the second half] was a good indication of what we can be," Gary Williams said. "Hopefully, they understand what we can do when we put our minds to it."
Next for Terps
Matchup: No. 15 Georgia Tech (18-6, 5-5 ACC) vs. Maryland (13-8, 4-6)
Site: Comcast Center, College Park
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN2/WBAL (1090 AM)