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).