- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

It was only four weeks ago when no one was sure which Maryland basketball team would materialize on the floor. Now everyone knows, and the only question is whether anyone will join them on the court in the aftermath of another complete performance.

Such was the case after the Terrapins earned perhaps their greatest validation of the season, rallying from double-digit deficits twice before finally overcoming No. 5 North Carolina 89-87 at Comcast Center behind D.J. Strawberry’s career-high 27 points.

It was Maryland’s fifth straight victory, continuing a torrid 15-day stretch for the Terps (22-7, 8-6 ACC).

But this might have an even longer-lasting effect for a team that had only one shot at North Carolina, expected from the season’s outset to lord over the conference deep into March.

“A win over a top-five team, it just helps us so much,” Strawberry said. “It helps our confidence a lot more. Everybody’s talking about how they’re supposed to be a national championship contender. We can play with them. We believe we can play with them, and for us to win this game [so] we know we can beat any team, period, it’s going to help us down the road.”

When the final seconds trickled away after a scrum off a missed free throw, the grumbles and jeers that had trickled down from the stands less than a month ago were replaced with something of far greater force — a horde of fans, shrugging off chairs and anything else in their path to celebrate the Terps’ signature victory.

“We didn’t play perfect, but we certainly played as hard as necessary to win the game,” coach Gary Williams said.

The Terps came to this joyous juncture with a lift from nearly everywhere. Junior Bambale Osby scored 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds but was a defensive nuisance to North Carolina center Tyler Hansbrough.

Eric Hayes, shaky in the first half, delivered five assists after the break.

And the Terps, so disorganized at times early in ACC play, showed they might have a chance to linger deeper into March than anyone would have guessed a few weeks back.

“That’s what I’m trying to do, that’s my job, is to make this team great,” Williams said. “I’m going to be here. The seniors aren’t going to be here. It’s great to see them get this today.”

Exactly how the Terps managed to topple the Tar Heels (24-5, 10-4) will be of long-term benefit. Maryland trailed by 13 less than nine minutes in. Yet the Terps scrapped back, finally tying it twice early in the second half.

Only the Terps needed another rally, this time from 12 down in the final 7:13, and Strawberry and fellow senior Mike Jones were the ones to spark it.

Jones, whose 18 points helped him top his season average in consecutive games for the first time since November, drained a 3-pointer from the left wing and was followed the next possession by a 3-pointer by Strawberry to pull the Terps within 77-73.

It was a swing that destroyed any aura of invincibility Carolina had built with its dazzling display of athleticism, dunks and free-wheeling substitutions (52 for the game).

By the time Jones — coolly bouncing off a steady diet of screens set by Maryland’s frontcourt — finally edged the Terps ahead with the second of consecutive baskets with 2:47 left, the inevitability of a Tar Heels victory had long since vanished.

So much of it was because of Strawberry, whose scintillating 12-for-18 performance marked arguably his finest night as a Terp. He earned some of his points from the perimeter, but the slasher’s most-needed push came in the second half when he charged to the basket several times rather than settling for outside looks when his teammates became too reliant on jumpers.

“I knew Carolina overplays everything, so they’re not going to be able to overplay and help on the drive so much,” Strawberry said. “When I was getting to the bucket, I was able to drop it off or I was able to get all the way to the hole and score. I was just taking whatever they were giving me.”

Strawberry gave Maryland a permanent lead, wriggling into the lane for a 5-footer to make it 85-84 with 1:28 left. The Terps capped a 24-7 spurt by converting four free throws — the last two after James Gist encapsulated the Terps’ 46-33 rebounding margin by grabbing an errant shot away from Hansbrough (22 points) and drawing a foul.

The Tar Heels still had a chance, clawing back within two on Wayne Ellington’s 3-pointer. Brandan Wright drew a foul for a chance at a tie, but he missed two free throws, and no one secured the loose ball, setting off bedlam in the stands.

At that moment, any lingering questions of whether the Terps would snap a two-year NCAA drought vanished.

Now, it’s only a matter of how much of a surge this victory will provide to an already sizzling team.

“The way we were playing, I think this is exactly what we needed to get ourselves into the tournament now and show ourselves we can beat some Sweet 16 teams,” Osby said.

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