COLLEGE PARK -- A funny thing nearly happened to the third-ranked Maryland women's basketball team on their way to the No. 1 ranking last night: They almost didn't make it.
The table was certainly set for the occasion. The Terps did their part by knocking off top-ranked Virginia on Wednesday in Charlottesville. And then last night, second-ranked Tennessee cooperated by losing to No. 10 Mississippi, 80-78, in overtime.
So, all Maryland had to do to nail down its first appearance at the top of the women's poll in the program's history was beat North Carolina, a team that has finished at the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference the last three years.
Well, the Terps (14-1, 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) got their win to all but assure the No. 1 ranking, but the 72-68 score was a lot closer than nearly everyone anticipated, save for Maryland coach Chris Weller.
"I said going in that if we lost to UNC, it would not be because we were flat or anything else," said Weller. "It would be because UNC is a really good team. They deserve to be in the top 15. I knew this was going to be a really good game."
To be sure, North Carolina (12-2, 3-2) is much improved over the last three years. They're off to the school's best start in 17 years and have already beaten 17th-ranked Clemson 72-56, and played the Cavaliers close before losing 68-63.
But if the Terps weren't looking ahead to their new ranking or to a season- high 2,033 spectators at Cole Field House, they certainly seemed to still be feeling the rush of Wednesday's win at Charlottesville.
"I don't think they were looking past us, but they just came off that big win at Virginia," said North Carolina senior guard Emily Johnson.
The Terps jumped out to a 10-3 lead early, but North Carolina refused to buckle and employed a 2-3 zone, which Virginia used Wednesday to get back into that contest.
It had the same effect for the scrappy Tar Heels, as they came back to lead 36-26 with 4 minutes, 37 seconds left in the first half, on the strength of 10 first-half points by freshman forward Charlotte Smith, the niece of former North Carolina State great David Thompson.
"I feel certain that for the rest of the season that we'll be seeing a lot of zone," said Weller.
But the Terps responded immediately, turning up the defensive pressure and hitting from the outside. Sophomore guard Limor Mizrachi, the hero of the Virginia win, hit a key three-pointer with 3.2 seconds left in the first half to give Maryland a 40-38 lead at intermission.
"We should have gone into the locker room ahead, but instead we go down two," said North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell.
Weller, who has spoken extensively this season of her team's depth, used it last night, resting three of her usual starters for most of the second half to stop North Carolina defensively.
"We went smaller to counter their big people inside and we scrambled and it disrupted their offense," Weller said.
The Terps choked off the passing lanes, and after allowing the Tar Heels an 8-1 run to start the second half, blitzed North Carolina, forcing turnovers on five straight possessions and converting on all of them.