CHAPEL HILL, N.C. —- Gary Williams sat in a familiar place in North Carolina’s press room Sunday night, his tie loosened a bit more than usual and his forehead still glistening from an evening of work.
If the Maryland basketball coach resembled the look of his team from the previous two hours, well, it was understandable.
The Terrapins could not be accused of playing great, nor could they be bashed for producing a terrible outing. It was somewhere in the middle and not nearly enough to topple No. 19 North Carolina, the Tar Heels’ 87-76 victory an affirmation of the obvious.
“We don’t have the luxury of playing below a certain level against a team like Carolina,” Williams said. “We couldn’t get up to the level we had to, and we paid the price.”
If it felt somewhat close, it was because Terrell Stoglin scored a career-high 28 points and Jordan Williams added 16 points and a career-best 19 rebounds while shaking off the effects of a stomach virus.
If it didn’t, it was probably because Tyler Zeller (25 points) and Harrison Barnes (21 points) ran roughshod for the Tar Heels while John Henson (15 rebounds and seven blocks) was a defensive menace.
As Gary Williams rushed his traveling party to catch the team’s chartered flight home, it was clear the coach was right: Maryland wasn’t on North Carolina’s level.
But the Terps were in their usual spot.
Maryland enters March at 18-11, an even 7-7 in the ACC. It is 1-11 against teams in the top 55 of the RPI, unbeaten against the rest of its schedule. Its last chance at a signature victory in the regular-season slipped away before the Terps had a chance to realize it was there.
Barnes hit three 3-pointers in the opening minutes, and North Carolina (22-6, 12-2) forged an early 13-5 lead. The Terps scored the next eight points, but would never lead. Indeed, that would be their only tie.
“Early on, I just felt it wasn’t one of our better starts in terms of our effort —- just being aware, being alive,” Gary Williams said. “I don’t know where it came from, but that’s the way it was.”
Another sliver of reality of Maryland’s inability to contend with the Tar Heels’ size. It was neither a sin nor a surprise —- Henson and Zeller in particular dominated the paint and denied Maryland much of a chance to get anything done close to the basket.
Just as jarring for the Terps was North Carolina’s consistent replies to abort any potential Maryland rallies.
“Our defense is what got us off balance,” Stoglin said. “Every time we scored, they would get transition baskets and push the ball back at us. That was what was killing us.”
Williams couldn’t summon the necessary answers, burning through the last of his timeouts with 10:32 remaining and Carolina comfortably up 68-51. The Terps would more than halve their deficit, closing with 82-74 in the final two minutes before the Tar Heels wrapped things up.
In finally shutting the door on Maryland late Sunday, North Carolina might have sapped what chance there was of the Terps earning an at-large NCAA tournament berth. Even with an expanded postseason field, Maryland’s profile remains skimpy enough that it will probably need the quality victories the ACC tournament quarterfinals and semifinals could offer.
Even that might not be enough —- especially if Maryland doesn’t finish the regular season strong against Miami and Virginia in the coming week.
For now, those are the tests Williams will fret about while trying to push the Terps to a level they couldn’t reach against North Carolina.
“I feel good about my guys,” Williams said. “But whether that’s true or not we’ll know Wednesday night with how we play against Miami down there.”
—- Patrick Stevens