Snowed in, fans unleash avalanche

January 28, 2000|By John Eisenberg

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Ordinarily, North Carolina's Dean Smith Center is about as loud as a library, about as intimidating as a night at the opera.

Then there was last night. A basketball game was scheduled, and Woodstock broke out. All that was missing was the rain and a mosh pit.

The Maryland Terrapins picked a bad night to make their annual visit.

Not only did the Tar Heels need a win to avoid their first five-game losing streak since the Atlantic Coast Conference was formed in the '50s, but thanks to some freak circumstances, it also was as if they borrowed Duke's famously intimidating crowd for a night.

"It sure felt like we were at Cameron [Indoor Stadium at Duke] or something," North Carolina guard Ed Cota said.

The Terps made enough three-pointers to lead at halftime, but they stopped hitting their shots, their defense fell apart and they took a 12-point beating.

"We just broke down," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.

The party-hearty crowd was so hopped up at the end that it swarmed the floor to celebrate a win over a Maryland team that fell to 2-4 in ACC play -- hardly a triumph worth framing.

"I've never worried about that before here," Williams said of the game-ending rush. "Usually, the people sitting in the first 10 rows can't run fast enough."

On a normal night at Smith, well-behaved alumni sit near the court and the students get kicked upstairs. The atmosphere is cool, benign, almost professional. The Tar Heels have a terrific record in the place, but more because of the quality of their teams than the environment in the building.

But the same storm that buried Baltimore in snow came through Chapel Hill on Tuesday, depositing the highest snowfall in the history of nearby Raleigh-Durham International Airport -- 18 inches. With classes canceled, the roads still a mess and the region at a standstill, Carolina officials shrugged and got hip. Not only did students get in for free last night, but they also got to sit where they wanted.

To say that bedlam ensued is putting it mildly. Remember when Wimbledon broke with tradition, scheduling matches on Sunday and allowed "commoners" to sit at Centre Court and whoop and holler? Multiply that times 10, and that's the trap the Terps walked into last night.

The upper deck was half-empty, but the students filling the lower tier stood for the entire game and cheered as if Michael Jordan were back in blue for a night. They'd sat in their dorms and shoveled snow for days, and it was time to kick out the jams.

"They had cabin fever like everyone else, and this was their chance to get out," Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said. "It made for a great crowd."

When it was over, the Carolina players, accustomed to their corporate-style crowds, looked almost dazed in the locker room.

"If [the crowd] was like that for every game here, we'd be hard to beat at home," Cota said. "They were really into it."

The crowd alone didn't beat the Terps, of course. Playing an average-at-best Carolina team -- the Heels are out of the Top 25 this week for the first time in a decade -- the Terps did all sorts of things wrong.

From the beginning, they settled for outside shots instead of trying to pound the ball inside to Lonny Baxter and Terence Morris. That was all right as long as the jumpers fell, which happened in the first half. The Terps led at the break, 41-34.

"It's kind of like fool's gold," Williams said. "If you don't try to get the ball inside, you're going to be in trouble when the outside shots stop falling."

When that happened, inevitably, in the second half, Carolina went on a 14-point run amid a shattering din. The Terps closed to within two, but they let up too many easy shots down the stretch to complete the comeback.

Seen in the crowd that stormed the court at the end was this sign: `For the Love of God -- Win!`

No, losing streaks don't go over well at all at Carolina, and this one had some fans calling for Guthridge to step aside. The issue won't soon go away, either, despite last night's win. The Tar Heels lack depth and speed and just aren't up to their usual high standard this season.

"Knowing about [the recent criticism of the Heels], I knew this might be a tough time to come in," Williams said. "To their credit, they played well."

The Terps now have to play a critical game tomorrow at Florida State, against a Seminoles team that won at the Smith Center last week. A loss would leave the Terps unranked, 2-5 in the conference and at a low ebb.

"We've been kind of up and down here," Williams said. "We've played 19 games. We should be more consistent by now."

They aren't. They're young, they make mistakes and they're winless on the road. That added up to trouble last night when a snowstorm turned the staid Smith Center into a pit, doubling the size of Maryland's task.

It was the night the opera went grunge.

"You know," Guthridge said, "we may have to schedule more snow games."

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