UNC's Harrison Barnes (40) drives to the basket against Maryland's Dino Gregory (33) in the second half. ROBERT WILLETT - email@example.com
CHAPEL HILL – Just after the final horn sounded on North Carolina’s 87-76 win over Maryland on Sunday night, a section of the Smith Center crowd chanted “We! Want! Duke! We! Want! Duke!”
Not only have the 19th-ranked Tar Heels now tied the No. 1 Blue Devils atop the conference standings, UNC now has a chance to earn the top seed in the ACC tournament, as well.
Thanks to junior Tyler Zeller’s 25 points and freshman Harrison Barnes’ 21, both Duke (which lost at Virginia Tech on Saturday) and Carolina are 12-2 in the league standings, and they play each other next Saturday in what will probably a showdown for regular-season conference bragging rights. Both still have a mid-week game – the Blue Devils host Clemson, while the Tar Heels travel to third-place Florida State.
But Sunday’s dominating performance re-opened the door for the Tar Heels (22-6 overall), whose last loss was in Durham on Feb. 9. They have now won five in a row, and 15 of their last 17 games.
“Since the last practice, we say, ‘There’s some hardware on the line. We need to start playing like that.’’’ Said UNC sophomore forward John Henson, who finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 7 blocks. “[Assistant] coach [Joe] Holladay, he wears the ACC ring now, and says ‘Do you want one of these?’ He kind of teases us a little bit – but it’s a serious thing. We’ve got a chance to put ourselves in position to win a regular-season title. So we need to get a little serious, and that’s what we did today.”
UNC looked focused from the get-go, taking an early 11-5 lead on the strength of three quick 3-pointers from Barnes (9-for-23, six rebounds). Then Zeller took over, scoring 14 first-half points en route to pushing the Tar Heels to their first double-digit lead, 37-27 on a three-point play with 4:26 left before the break.
But it was a possession about two minutes later pretty much summed up the first 20 minutes: With 2:32 remaining before halftime, Barnes scored on a fifth-chance basket – after Zeller, Henson, Barnes, and Zeller, again, missed on the same trip down the court. That gave UNC a 39-29 lead.
By the end of the half, when UNC wasahead 43-31, the Tar Heels had 15 offensive rebounds – while Maryland had made only 13 shots.
“It wasn’t one of our better starts, as far as our effort, of being aware, being alive,’’ Terrapins coach Gary Williams said. “Once you get behind like that, it’s hard to burn the energy … to keep the game within striking distance, and then try to make the comeback.”
It was more of the Barnes and Zeller show in the second half – with a dash of reserve Leslie McDonald (who went 6-for-10 for the game, after making only six shots, total, over his previous four outings) mixed in. Meanwhile, sophomore Dexter Strickland finished with a career-high eight assists, and combined with point guard Kendall Marshall for a total of 18 assists before either managed to score a basket (they were a combined 1-for-9).
Maryland (18-11, 7-7 ACC), which needed this win to help strengthen its post-season chances, got 28 points from freshman guard Terrell Stoglin. Jordan Williams added 16 points and 19 rebounds.
The Tar Heels’ victory likely sets up a winner-take-regular-season-title scenario for Saturday’s Duke-Carolina game in Chapel Hill. Although UNC coach Roy Williams cautioned that the Tar Heels’ must first focus on Wednesday’s game in Tallahassee, Fla., Carolina could still lose that match-up, but finish first in the regular season by beating Duke (because even if the two teams finish tied atop the standings, UNC holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Devils should FSU or Virginia Tech finish in third place).
“It’s a great feeling [to know we have a chance],’’ Marshall said. “One of our goals this season is, we want to get a ring. Not one – but multiple. And the first step to that is the ACC regular season. To get that, we have a game against Florida State. So we just have to take care of business one step at a time. Right now, we control our own destiny.”