The stretch run begins now.
Third-ranked Maryland ends a one-week break tonight when it visits reeling North Carolina. With three weeks and seven games left in the regular season, the Terrapins are rested and ready as they pursue their first ACC regular season title since 1980.
“We have done a pretty good job focusing on our goals,” forward Tahj Holden said. “That’s to be regular season ACC champ, ACC tournament champ and [win] a national championship. To win the ACC regular season, we have to win some key games on the road. That starts with North Carolina.”
The Tar Heels and Georgia Tech, which visits Cole Field House on Wednesday, are expected to be tasty appetizers before the main dish: top-ranked Duke next Sunday at Cole. The Terps (18-3, 8-1 ACC)) need to win today to stay even with the first-place Blue Devils (10-1) in the conference loss column.
“Overall, [the break] couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who gave his team an extra day off Thursday. “We’re tired. The Virginia game and the N.C. State game in a [five-day] period was tough. The way the first half of the season set up, with five out of eight on the road, we had done a lot of traveling, too. There’s a cumulative effect with that type of thing. This gave us a time to rest and get ready for our next seven games.”
After tonight, Maryland will play four of its final six games at home, including what figures to be its toughest contests with Duke, 10th-ranked Virginia and No. 19 Wake Forest.
Although the Terps will be looking to equal their best ACC start in history (the 1979-80 team opened 9-1) today at the Dean Dome, tonight’s game is hardly the titanic clash it usually is. North Carolina (6-14, 2-8 ACC) is rivaling only Enron in terms of its free fall.
The Tar Heels have lost nine of their last 10, and another defeat would equal the most in a season in the program’s illustrious 92-year history. North Carolina last lost 15 games in the 1951-52 season.
“Things have been better in Chapel Hill,” said coach Matt Doherty, whose team’s last nine losses were by an average of 21.8 points. No. 19 Wake Forest completed its first regular season sweep of the Tar Heels in 32 seasons Wednesday with a 90-66 romp. The Terps, who scored the most points ever against the Tar Heels in a 112-79 ambush at Cole a month ago, last swept them in the 1998-99 season, when Steve Francis led Maryland to its last win in Chapel Hill.
An inexperienced backcourt and a lack of leadership have plagued the Tar Heels. North Carolina had 24 turnovers against Wake Forest and will feel the heat of Maryland’s fullcourt press early tonight. The Tar Heels’ proud achievement, making 27 consecutive NCAA tournaments the longest streak in NCAA history almost surely will end.
Senior Jason Capel (15.5 points, 9.7 rebounds), who missed practice time this week with a sprained left elbow and suffered a concussion earlier this season, is one of numerous Tar Heels who have physical wounds as well as mental anguish.
“It’s very frustrating,” senior center Kris Lang told the Raleigh News and Observer after the latest pummeling. “If it’s a new mistake every time, it’s understandable. But it’s the same thing over and over.”
Maryland needs to maintain the momentum it rode to 10 victories in 11 games before the break. The Terps have won five straight, with strong contributions from guard Drew Nicholas, center Ryan Randle and Holden off the bench.
The past week gave Maryland time for a last tuneup before it makes its final push for a league title and a repeat trip to the Final Four.
“You didn’t really have time to polish anything,” Williams said of the usual two-games-a-week schedule. “You just had to get ready for the next game.”
The Terps have fond memories of their recent stomping of the Tar Heels, when they shot 58 percent, forced 25 turnovers and made 19 steals. Juan Dixon led the way with 29 points and matched a career high with eight steals. Maryland made 13 of 23 3-pointers (56.5 percent), led by Dixon draining five of eight.
“It seemed like we were mistake-free that night,” said center Lonny Baxter, who feels his legs are fresher because of the recent light schedule. “We blew them out. Hopefully, we’ll have the same success going in there.”