CHAPEL HILL, N.C. Things got so strange last night inside Dean Smith Center that the few thousand fans who bothered to stay to the end were cheering the North Carolina players as they walked off the court. It was a show of appreciation for the Tar Heels not getting embarrassed again in their home arena after only losing by 15.
Third-ranked Maryland kept pounding the ball inside and easily wore down North Carolina to post a 92-77 win before a less-than-sellout crowd. The Terrapins won their sixth straight game behind point guard Steve Blake, who did an excellent job running the offense and distributing the ball. Lonny Baxter was the happy recipient of many of Blake’s nine dishes, and finished with 16 points to go with his 10 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season.
Maryland (19-3, 9-1 ACC) closed within a half-game of league-leading Duke, which is 10-1 in the conference. The Terps matched their best-ever league start, set in 1979-80. Maryland never has been 10-1 in the ACC, but can do that Wednesday when Georgia Tech visits Cole Field House.
“We came out flat on the defensive end and our defensive intensity wasn’t there,” said Dixon, who had a team-high 18 points. “North Carolina didn’t look like the same team we played before out there.”
The last time the two squads met, Maryland scored the most points ever against the Tar Heels in a 112-79 drubbing last month in College Park. This time, North Carolina showed much more poise, particularly in ballhandling, but still never was in range of an upset. Maryland was hurt by an improved team and was a bit rusty after a week off.
“We had to get some guys up tonight, and we usually don’t have to do that,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said.
The Terps have won 11 of their last 12 games, and are in position for their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1979-80 with four of their final six games at home. Duke comes to Maryland for a highly anticipated showdown Sunday.
Maryland used an 11-0 run early to break away and was in control from there as it continued Carolina’s season of misery. The Tar Heels (6-15, 2-9) lost their fourth straight and fell nine games under .500 for the first time in their 92-year history. The nine league losses are a record for the ACC’s most successful program.
Maryland scored the most ever points against the Tar Heels in the January drubbing when it shot a blistering 58 percent and made 13 3-pointers. This time, it was a more workmanlike victory.
Drew Nicholas had 14 points for the Terps, while Byron Mouton added 16 and Chris Wilcox had 13 to put five Maryland players in double figures. Wilcox suffered a scare when he attempted to block a shot, hitting his head and back hard on the floor.
“We had an inside advantage, even though we missed a lot of close shots,” said Wilcox, who made four of 12 field goal attempts. “Steve [Blake] does a great job getting us into the offense and getting the ball inside.”
Blake had nine points and nine rebounds.
North Carolina’s Kris Lang had a game-high 23 points, but 19 came in the second half after the game was effectively decided.
“At this point in the season, to come back and play with heart and show some fight, I’m proud of our guys,” said North Carolina coach Matt Doherty, whose team had 13 turnovers as opposed to 25 in College Park. “That’s a start.”
The Terps took control with several impressive offensive spurts at the beginning and cruised from there. North Carolina got no closer than 12 in the second half as Maryland answered every mini-run by the Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels did that by scoring four straight to cut the lead to 53-41 on a pull-up jumper by Jawad Williams (21 points), but the Terps quickly thwarted the short rally. Blake answered with a 3-pointer and Tahj Holden made two free throws to re-assert Maryland’s dominance at 58-41 with 16:00 remaining.
Later, Dixon hit a 3-pointer that bounced high off the rim and above the backboard before splitting the twine to make it 69-50. Wilcox gave the Terps a 20-point lead at 71-51 on one of his famous, vicious slams. Wilcox made two free throws on Maryland’s next possession to push the lead to 22.
The Terps took charge early and led 47-30 at halftime. Baxter had 13 points at the break. The Terps made four of seven 3-pointers before intermission as Dixon and Nicholas each made a pair. North Carolina shot just 39 percent in the half, and made two of nine treys.
Maryland broke an 8-8 tie by scoring 11 straight points and was never seriously threatened after that. Baxter gave the Terps the lead with an inside layup off a Blake feed. Mouton’s 8-foot baseline jumper made it a four-point edge. After Baxter drew a charge on Lang, the Terps center made two free throws to make it 14-8. Dixon closed the run with five straight points.