- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2004

It’s amazing how two straight victories can change your perspective.

Two weeks ago, Maryland’s NCAA tournament hopes took a huge hit with a home loss to N.C. State that left the Terrapins’ records at 11-7 overall and 2-5 in the ACC. All that changed when Maryland earned a critical triumph at Virginia and became a factor in the conference race with last Sunday’s win over Florida State. Today Maryland puts that modest winning streak on the line when it visits 14th-ranked North Carolina.

“That has been the toughest thing with our team — making them understand how our conference works,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “Especially our conference this year, where it seems like there are a lot of teams that are close in ability. Some teams get off to a hot start. Some have a lull in the middle and finish strong, or whatever. You just have to take yours when you can. You get your wins when you can.”

The Terps are fourth, a half-game behind Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, which was upset by Virginia yesterday in Charlottesville. Erratic North Carolina could be Maryland’s best chance for a conference road win; the Terps’ other two road games are against top-ranked Duke and N.C. State

Maryland defeated the Tar Heels 90-84 at Comcast Center last month and today can achieve its third consecutive regular-season sweep of North Carolina.

“Anytime you can get a two-game swing with one team, especially this year, that’s important,” said Williams, who has a 3-0 record against Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, including a victory over his Kansas team in the 2002 Final Four.

North Carolina (14-7, 4-6) has lost three of its last four but is 9-2 in the Dean Dome, including a win over then-top-ranked Connecticut. Both losses — to current No.1 Duke and No.20 Wake Forest — came in overtime. The Tar Heels’ only win over Maryland in the past six meetings was in last season’s ACC tournament.

Maryland will have a size advantage, while Carolina has the edge on the perimeter. One key matchup will be Jamar Smith against Tar Heels center Sean May. May, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, totaled 18 points and nine rebounds in the first meeting but made seven of 19 shots.

“I probably can get off the floor a lot quicker, so I should be able to outrebound him,” said Smith, who made eight of 14 shots in the first game and had nine rebounds. “I can beat him down the floor probably every play as long as we run. I just have to beat him with my quickness. That’s what happened last game.”

May is the Tar Heels’ only true inside presence while Maryland can run in three or four big men to wear him down. North Carolina’s success has been largely due to its offense, which ranks third in the nation at 85.3 points. Inconsistent shooting guard Rashad McCants is the ACC’s top scorer at 19.6, and point guard Raymond Felton leads the conference with 7.6 assists.

“When they rebound the ball, they are already throwing the ball to halfcourt before they take their first dribble,” said Smith, who is coming off a 16-point, 14-rebound performance against Florida State. “That was killing us because we had people trying to rebound, and by the time we turn around, they were way past us. We have been working a lot on [transition defense] in practice.”

The Tar Heels’ powerful offense is tempered by its porous defense. North Carolina is last in the ACC field goal percentage defense (45.1 percent), largely because opponents attack a shaky front line with May getting little support in the paint.

The Terps have been finding ways to win despite lacking a proven scorer. They are doing it with solid defense and rebounding.

The Terps know a strong season finish will place them back in the NCAA tournament, and they bring renewed confidence and momentum into the Dean Dome.

A win would go a long way toward their preferred postseason destination, but a loss — with No.15 Georgia Tech up next — could return them to a precarious position.

“It could go either way,” Maryland point guard John Gilchrist said.

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