CHAPEL HILL, N.C. | The Maryland basketball team began February with hope. Not abundantly talented, the Terrapins could undeniably be interesting when the mood struck them. And that happened to just about every night, even when vaunted North Carolina came to town less than four weeks ago.
The bunch that straggles out of the month has, for the most part, done what it could do. But it enters March without its point guard (the injured Pe’Shon Howard), without a chance at a .500 record in conference play and with a few wounds after a humbling return trip to visit the Tar Heels on Wednesday.
Ultimately, the slow start didn’t matter; Maryland overcame that to close within a couple possessions in the second half. That, too, didn’t retain its currency. The Tar Heels, being the uber-talented bunch they are, zipped to an 88-64 rout to complete a season sweep of the Terps.
“They were at another level,” coach Mark Turgeon said of a 21-2 Carolina run that turned a potentially interesting eight-point game into a rout.
North Carolina senior Tyler Zeller scored 30 points —- including a 20-for-23 outing at the foul line —- to send Maryland (16-13, 6-9 ACC) to its second consecutive defeat.
Maryland can finish no better than seventh in the ACC after the setback. The Terps need a victory over Virginia on Sunday and two Clemson losses to earn the No. 7 seed; otherwise, they will be the No. 8 seed in next week’s ACC tournament in Atlanta.
North Carolina (26-4, 13-2) was never a great matchup for the Terps, even when they were at full strength. Granted, few teams want to see the Tar Heels this season, but their eagerness to run was always going to be an issue for a Maryland team with nine recruited scholarship players. In many ways, the Terps ability to stay close with Carolina in College Park was a sign of impressive resilience.
That was with Howard, of course, and the Terps’ remaining players were at less than full strength Wednesday. Reserve guard Mychal Parker slogged through a case of strep throat. Senior Sean Mosley retweaked a lingering left ankle injury. Terrell Stoglin, showing the wear and tear of a long season of shooting, left plenty of his shots short.
And so Maryland faded, run down by a collection of talent playing its final home game before what its fans believe can be a special postseason.
“This is one of the hottest gyms I’ve played in,” said forward James Padgett (13 points, 13 rebounds).
“We got a lot of people on the team cramping, but that’s not an excuse. With their pace, the bigs have to sprint back. You have to be on your Ps and Qs when you play them because you never know what’s going to happen.”
On this particular night, Maryland had a pretty good idea. Zeller, starting along with a career reserve and three walk-ons, deposited his first points in the opening minute and did not stop until coach Roy Williams subbed him out with 6:39 to go.
In the hour and change between those moments, Zeller made a steady procession to the foul line, setting Dean Dome records for free throws made and attempted while coming within one of a school record for makes at the charity stripe established more than a half-century ago.
“I’ve never seen a big man shoot that many free throws in my life, so I guess very tough,” Padgett said of stopping Zeller from getting to the line. “He did a great job establishing position and drawing contact. It was pretty tough.”
Maryland, undermanned all year in the post, had no reply for Zeller. Both Alex Len and Ashton Pankey fouled out by the middle of the second half, and Berend Weijs played a good swath of his minutes in severe foul trouble. Padgett, for his part, drew a matchup with the equally difficult John Henson.
Len was perhaps the best equipped of the bunch to handle Zeller, but the senior craftily found his way to the line and helped keep Len to 16 minutes.
“Hopefully he can learn,” Turgeon said of Len. “Maybe he needs to go to the Zeller School of Drawing Fouls —- come down here this summer and work with Zeller, and maybe he can be that guy in the future for us.”
The future will soon be upon these Terps, perhaps after only two more games. Maryland, for all of its effort and want-to for much of the season, limps into March with a short-handed roster clearly exhausted by a long season.
Perhaps it was bound to happen, even as the Terps feistily dared to be interesting deep into February. An ill-timed encounter with North Carolina —- and Zeller in particular —- was just an extra blow to the hopes of finishing as strong as they desired.
“It’s very difficult,” freshman guard Nick Faust (17 points) said. “You just have to keep your head [up] and keep pressing and keep working to get better.”
Maryland did just that nearly all season. But as February ends, it’s tough to tell how much better things really can get for this worn-out bunch.
—- Patrick Stevens