COLLEGE PARK -- There was something strange about where the Maryland Terrapins started last night's game against North Carolina State. There also was something familiar about the way the Terps finished.
Or, in this case, nearly didn't.
Wolfpack coach Les Robinson chose to have his team shoot at the basket that Maryland has used in the first half for most, if not all, of its games at Cole Field House over the past 40 years. Give or take a decade.
"Every now and then you want to change things up," Robinson said before the game.
What the seventh-ranked Terps didn't want to change is a habit of beating N.C. State, as well as keeping their fans glued to the very end. Maryland accomplished both, seeing its 24-point lead cut to eight before holding on for an 84-71 victory.
The victory -- the 100th for Gary Williams at his alma matter -- helped Maryland (21-5, 10-3) move into a tie with idle North Carolina for second place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Terps and Tar Heels are a half-game behind Virginia, which beat Georgia Tech.
"The first thing is, you've got to give State a lot of credit," said Williams, whose team is now 15-0 at home this season going into Saturday's finale against Clemson. "Our players and our fans might have thought the game was over when we went up 20, but N.C. State didn't quit."
It seemed that way early in the second half. After scoring the last eight points to build a 41-31 lead at halftime, Maryland opened the second half with a strong defensive surge that wilted the Wolfpack. It eventually produced an 18-4 run and a 66-42 lead with 10:27 remaining.
"We did some bad things, but before it really snowballed, we started doing some things to help us get back in it," said N.C. State junior center Todd Fuller, who led the Wolfpack with a game-high 21 points.
Mostly, the Wolfpack shot threes. Maryland watched as its lead was cut to 73-65, with a little under five minutes left, making Williams and a sellout crowd of 14,500 a bit agitated. It was still eight, 79-71, with 2:17 left to play, after a breakaway layup by senior guard Lakista McCuller.
But N.C. State (12-11, 4-9) could get no closer, as Maryland made five of six free throws in the final two minutes to pull away. The Terps placed all five starters in double figures, led by sophomore All-American Joe Smith's 20 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots.
"They did a good job of coming back, but we kept our composure," said Smith, who had his second straight game with 20 or more points and more than 10 rebounds. "I didn't think the game was over when they kept hitting those threes. When you score three for two, that's not going to work."
N.C. State came back behind the three-point shooting of its backcourt, McCuller (16 points) and freshman Ishua Benjamin (11). They combined to hit seven of 12 threes.
But Maryland had built its big lead -- the only time this season the Terps led an ACC opponent by 20 or more -- on three-point shooting by reserves Mario Lucas, Matt Kovarik and Rodney Elliott. Each hit threes -- it was Elliott's first as a Terp and Kovarik's first this season -- and seemingly put Maryland on the brink of a rare ACC blowout.
On the brink, but not over the edge.
"We're guilty of that, but you've seen that across the country this year," Williams said of N.C. State's comeback. "We made a run and they made a run. Our run was bigger."
Asked if he was concerned about his team's inability to put opponents away, Williams said, "It's one of those things you have to learn. We have 21 wins, so I think we're learning and getting better."
It was Maryland's best performance since upsetting North Carolina two weeks ago. Junior point guard Duane Simpkins saw his shooting touch return, finishing with 16 points on five of eight from the field.
Junior forward Exree Hipp had 14, to go along with seven rebounds. Junior guard Johnny Rhodes had 12 points, five assists, five rebounds and two steals. Sophomore forward Keith Booth, held scoreless for the first time in Sunday's win over Cincinnati in San Antonio, came out of the offensive freezer to finish with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
"We have no excuses," said Robinson. "They're a Top 10 team, a Final Four team, and we got beat."
Robinson was asked if his decision to start the game at what was normally Maryland's basket was merely a ploy, or a way to change his team's run of misfortune against the Terps. The N.C. State coach, whose team came in on a two-game winning streak, said it was neither.
"We thought if the game was close, we wanted our team to set up the press in the second half in front of our bench," said Robinson, whose Wolfpack has now been swept by the Terps in two of the last three years.
Though Williams didn't seem to mind, some of his players did.
"I think they wanted to do something to get on our nerves," said Hipp. "But we took it to them."
At least for a while.
NOTES: Freshman guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, who seemed to have worked his way into the regular rotation, didn't play for the second straight game. Williams said that he had planned to play Jasikevicius after the Terps built their big lead, but went back to his starters. Williams said Jasikevicius likely will play Saturday if Clemson goes to a zone.