- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

The scoreboard at Chapel Hill’s Dean Smith Center might need six digits to show the final score this afternoon.

No. 22 Maryland (9-2, 1-0 ACC) visits No. 3 North Carolina (12-1, 1-0) in a meeting between two of the nation’s top offenses. The Tar Heels’ 92.7-point average is tops, with six games in triple digits. Maryland’s 88.1 is third nationally, including a conference-high 112 points vs. Liberty.

Halfcourt offense. Transition scoring. Flat-out running downcourt at breakneck speed. All three will be on view, though both teams expect to press from inbounds pass to the rim.

“It’s two heavyweights going at it,” Terrapins forward Mike Grinnon said yesterday. “The team that can execute its offense at the end of the game and not make stupid turnovers will [win].”

Both teams have expectations as high as the probable score as ACC play resumes following token conference openers in the past month. North Carolina returns four starters to go with freshman phenom forward Marvin Williams. Big Blue has put a bruising on 12 straight opponents, including the last sixby an average of 34 points.

Maryland returns four starters from last year’s ACC tournament champions. The Terps also have four players in double figures; only one of the 10 combined starters averages less than 9.3 points.

Expect lots of scoring runs on both sides, with the key being whether the Terps can counter late. In losses to George Washington and Wisconsin, Maryland was unable to withstand late runs.

“When you go on the road in this league, it’s all about heart,” forward Nik Caner-Medley said. “We need to match that intensity. It’s going to be a high-pitched game and emotional, but the big thing is we have to match their emotion.”

Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: “You’ll find out where you are defensively in a game like this. That’s important because you can make a couple changes pretty quickly at this time of year. There are things you tweak.”

Maryland would prefer the likely fast pace. The Terps’ defense frequently creates a lot of turnovers for quick points.

“If we don’t get back on defense, they’ll get down the floor very fast,” forward Travis Garrison said. “I think we’re just as quick as those guys. We’re very close [to playing at maximum level], almost on edge. It’s [a case of] how good do we want to be? We know we’re good. But it’s not enough knowing; you have to go out with intensity and energy. Just have that killer instinct and just dominate. If we get that instinct back, there’s no stopping us.”

Despite both teams’ strong backcourts, the game’s outcome likely will depend on big men. North Carolina center Sean May (16.6 points, 8.8 rebounds) will be a major challenge for Maryland forward Ekene Ibekwe (9.3, 7.5). Both are 6-foot-9, but May is 50 pounds heavier at 260. Ibekwe’s lanky frame is usually around the ball, though, as attested by his 23 blocks.

“Ekene is funny — you have to watch him,” Williams said. “He gets his hands on a lot of balls. It looks like he’s getting pushed around, but he gets the ball.”

However, Ibekwe didn’t start last year and backup James Gist is a freshman, so point guard John Gilchrist will try to be a steadying force amid the chaos.

“The younger guys have to really experience it to understand what it takes to play a major role,” he said. “Ekene, James Gist have new roles this year. In games like this, they don’t understand [the pressure].”

North Carolina’s usual frantic crowd of 21,800 at the Dean Dome isn’t as profane as some Tobacco Road audiences, and the setting isn’t as intimate as that at nearby Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. But the arena is every bit as intimidating.

“The baby blue [background] lulls you to sleep,” Caner-Medley said. “The fans before the game are real quiet. They don’t get on you in warmups like a lot of places, and then all of a sudden the game starts and they erupt. It’s something you have to prepare for. They know basketball. They’re more about cheering their team on than taunting you.”

The Terps worked out last night at Smith Center to gain a feel for the arena, where the background can distort a player’s depth perception.

“The backdrop is more difficult to shoot against sometimes than red or black, where you can really see the backdrop,” Gilchrist said.

Maryland follows this test with a trip to No. 3 Wake Forest (12-1, 1-0) on Tuesday before facing a game at No. 5 Duke (10-0, 1-0) on Jan. 26. The ACC seldom has been tougher, so no wonder the Terps are eager to prove themselves today.

“[A win] would give guys confidence that we can beat any team in the country because we’re really lacking that one big win this year,” Gilchrist said.

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