COLLEGE PARK -- As the University of North Carolina basketball team strode onto the floor for the start of yesterday's game at Cole Field House, senior forward Rick Fox flexed his muscular shoulders. But Maryland hardly flinched.
The Terrapins stayed right with the eighth-ranked Tar Heels for a little more than a half, but North Carolina used its muscle, as well as its bench, to wear down Maryland for an 87-75 Atlantic Coast Conference victory before a sellout crowd of 14,500.
"The problem is when their guys are fresh coming in off the bench and can really run fast, we're breathing hard when the ref puts the ball in play," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "Sometimes we couldn't get there in the second half."
Maryland (13-11, 3-8) was all there in the first half. Led by sophomore point guard Kevin McLinton, the seven-deep Terps withstood the wave of bodies coming off the North Carolina bench and had a chance to lead at halftime, but a three-point shot by Matt Roe rimmed the basket with five seconds to go, and the Tar Heels took a 45-43 lead into their locker room.
"Missing that shot in the first half hurt a little," said Roe, whose 4-for-15 shooting overall was partly attributable to a case of flu.
It wasn't as if North Carolina (19-4, 8-3) was playing badly. The Tar Heels easily had broken Maryland's full-court press for several breakaway dunks and layups. They dominated the boards. Even their blue-chip freshmen had played well in limited court time.
The Terps, however, were getting by on more than just heart. McLinton had hit all four of his field-goal attempts and finished with 11 of a career-high 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting. Cedric Lewis blocked three shots in the half and made the prettiest reverse dunk for Maryland since Len Bias' back-to-the-basket jam against the Tar Heels five years ago.
"They're a very good team," said McLinton. "They just kept running and they really wore us down in the second half."
Or, as Lewis (20 points, five rebounds) said, "I was really tired in the second half. Trying to wrestle with five 7-footers is tough."
Lewis might have been exaggerating a bit, but not much. If the Tar Heels split up their first 10 players, each group could probably give Duke a run for the ACC championship. All five starters scored in double figures, led by Fox (19 points).
Think about this: Freshman center Eric Montross, possibly the No. 1 recruit in the country last year, played less for North Carolina yesterday (10 minutes, nine points) than either sophomore forward Evers Burns (18 minutes) and junior guard Matthew Downing (10 minutes) played for Maryland.
"I thought we got pushed around inside, that's why I put Montross in," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who didn't explain why he took the 7-footer out.
The Tar Heels took control of the game early in the second half. Maryland scored on one of its first six possessions, but still trailed only 56-51, on a rebound follow by Downing with with 14 minutes, 56 seconds left in the game. North Carolina then went on a 13-4 run and would lead by as many as 18 on two occasions.
But the Terps were able to make the final score a bit more !B respectable, especially considering the 32-point pounding they took in Chapel Hill last month. With no postseason to play for, the result of sanctions imposed last March by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Maryland will just try to finish out what has certainly been a surprising season.
"This is as satisfying a team as I have ever coached," said Williams, whose team plays Tuesday at Virginia Tech. "We are going to keep playing the rest of the season."
Probably with McLinton at point guard, regardless of whether Walt Williams returns from the leg injury that has sidelined him since the second half of a Jan. 12 loss at Duke. With the exception of a sloppy stretch during a recent three-game ACC losing streak, McLinton has emerged as a bona fide major college player.
"I liked the way Kevin McLinton played today," said Gary Williams. "He was tough on the ball all day. I liked the way he played under pressure. This game was good for his development."
Said North Carolina center Pete Chilcutt, "I was surprised by how well they played. They're a totally different team than we beat in Chapel Hill. They're a little bit better than when they had Walt, because they don't rely on one person too much."
NOTES: The Carolina victory coupled with Duke's, 86-77 loss to Wake Forest, put the Tar Heels in a first-place tie with the Blue Devils. The teams will meet March 3 in Chapel Hill . . . . Walt Williams worked out before yesterday's game, but according to Gary Williams, still is experiencing some pain in the injured leg . . . . Maryland closes out its home schedule Saturday against Wake Forest.