Terps won't put questions to rest while falling asleep

January 11, 2001|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins were four points ahead of North Carolina at halftime last night at Cole Field House, and all was right with their world. They were playing hard, playing well and seemingly on the verge of a big win that would complete their comeback from their troubling slow start in November.

"I thought we were in great position to win," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.

What happened next was as stunning as it was definitive. The Terps fell apart. The second half started without them. North Carolina ripped through them for the first 12 minutes of the second half, soaring from four points down to 19 up as a packed house of Maryland fans watched in silence and disbelief.

In the end, instead of completing their comeback from November's troubles, the Terps found themselves back in the same distress after an 86-83 loss. Still winless against Top 25 opponents, three losses in three chances. Still not living up to their high preseason ranking.

Still an enigma.

All it took was 12 minutes of sluggish defense to wipe out any gains the Terps thought they had made with all those blowouts of the Norfolk States and Stony Brooks in December.

Those wins aren't worth a thing if you can't beat the ranked teams, too. And Maryland still hasn't shown that it can, as much as Williams doesn't want to hear that.

No, last night's loss doesn't mean the season is over; having played just three of the 16 Atlantic Coast Conference games on their schedule (and won two), the Terps have all sorts of time to get their act together.

But make no mistake, this is one of those losses that sets off alarms. Even though North Carolina came in with an eight-game winning streak and a No. 9 national ranking, five places better than Maryland, the Terps were supposed to win. To live up to their preseason billing as one of the nation's best teams, they were expected to beat Carolina at Cole, as they had in each of the three prior seasons.

They did for a half. But in the wake of their second-half collapse, some familiar, nagging questions suddenly were back in play again.

Is this team physical enough inside to make a March Madness run? Can they consistently deliver the kind of tenacious defense Williams' teams have played over the years?

The answer to both questions last night was no.

Carolina dominated inside, even though that wasn't a complete shock with seven-footer Brendan Haywood patrolling the middle for the Tar Heels with Kris Lang and Julius Peppers assisting. Maryland somehow wound up with a 45-44 rebounding edge, but as Williams said, "Sometimes statistics don't tell the real story." And the "real story" was that the Tar Heels owned the lane.

Carolina also made the Terps look bad on defense in the first 12 minutes of the second half. That's right, just flat-out bad.

After effectively hounding the Tar Heels in the first 20 minutes and limiting them to 40 percent shooting, the Terps gave them all sorts of open looks after halftime. Suddenly, for reasons neither Williams nor any of his players could explain, Maryland's feet just stopped working on defense.

"They hit the open shots, which is to their credit, but we sure gave them those open shots," Williams said. "I bet they had more good looks in the first six or seven minutes of the second half than they did in the entire first half."

Why?

"Our overall defensive intensity just lagged," Williams said. "It wasn't about X's and O's. The intensity that was there in the first half just wasn't there anymore."

The Terps rallied impressively, but never to the point that they had the ball and a chance to tie or go ahead in the final minutes. Trailing by 19 points with 12 minutes to play was just too much to overcome.

"A hole too deep," the Terps' Byron Mouton said.

The Terps have a chance to right themselves at least temporarily Sunday at Florida State against the ACC's weakest team, but then they come home and play Wake Forest, which was undefeated until last weekend, and then go on the road to North Carolina State, never an easy place to win. After that, it's home to play Duke.

Whew. With five teams ranked in the top 14 as of this week, the ACC is obviously a much tougher place this year than it's been in the past few years.

"You don't want to lose at home, but we did, and now we have to go make up for that somewhere [on the road]," Williams said. "This is just the way it's going to be in the ACC this year."

A loss to a North Carolina team with its core back from a Final Four season is always easy to rationalize. And no one is suggesting that this deep, talented Maryland team isn't going to end up winning a lot of ACC games and eventually earn a high seed in March.

But it's January, and they still haven't shown they can beat the top teams. Anyone who doesn't find that at least somewhat alarming is in denial.

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