In a game the Terps needed to win to keep their at-large hopes alive for a bid to the NCAA tournament, North Carolina was the bigger, stronger, and faster team.
Gary Williams called timeout after timeout — burning his last one with 10:32 remaining in the game — to search for the right words or combination of players to ignite a spark.
But short of finding Juan Dixon or Greivis Vasquez sitting at the end of the bench — or at least a Lonny Baxter to counterbalance the Tar Heels’ dominant frontcourt — it wasn’t going to matter.
The Terps ran into a buzz saw that was simply better than them in an 87-76 loss in Chapel Hill Sunday night. Short of a miracle run in Greensboro, N.C. in two weeks, Maryland saw its tournament hopes fade away in a similar fashion to many of their losses this season.
A respectable effort, but just not good enough.
North Carolina’s frontcourt combination of Tyler Zeller and John Henson combined for 35 points and 21 rebounds as the Tar Heels racked up 19 offensive rebounds, 14 coming in the first half to build a 43-31 lead at intermission. The Heels’ 46-42 edge in rebounding failed to tell how lopsided it was in that department, particularly in the first half when North Carolina thrived on second-chance opportunities.
The Tar Heels’ freshman combination of Harrison Barnes (21 points) and Kendall Marshall (10 assists) was terrific while sophomore Leslie McDonald came off the bench to add 15 points and three 3-pointers.
To be fair, North Carolina (22-6, 12-2 ACC) played like a group staking its claim as the ACC’s best team with a home rematch against Duke only six days away to likely determine the conference’s regular season champion.
Maryland received another sterling effort from freshman Terrell Stoglin who scored a career-high 28 points, his sixth straight double-digit performance. Sophomore Jordan Williams, battling a stomach bug, added 16 points and a career-high 19 rebounds but was clearly not 100 percent against North Carolina’s massive front line.
After that for the Terps?
Not a whole lot.
The senior trio of Dino Gregory, Cliff Tucker, and Adrian Bowie combined for just 16 points on 7-for-19 shooting in a game the Terps needed to win to avoid ending up where the three played to conclude their first season at Maryland: the NIT.
The Terps went 2-for-12 from 3-point range, making a double-digit deficit too steep to overcome in the second half.
Despite the optimism created by consecutive wins over NC State and Florida State, Maryland reverted back into the team it’s looked like all season against tougher competition.
One that doesn’t have enough to make the NCAA tournament.
While optimists will point out that Maryland doesn’t have a bad loss to its name and will envision possible scenarios that might get the Terps invited to the Big Dance — short of the automatic bid that accompanies winning the ACC tournament, of course — they’ll only be grasping at straws.
An 0-6 record against top-25 teams and a lone win against top-50 RPI teams (1-9 overall) doesn’t warrant mention in the conversation, let alone recognition as a bubble team.
Two wins in Greensboro over an ACC bottom feeder and Virginia Tech or Florida State won’t do it for the selection committee. A trip to the final along with other bubble scenarios falling perfectly in Maryland’s favor might make the selection show worth watching, but still won’t leave the Terps in great shape.
Cutting down the nets at the Greensboro Coliseum — the same place where John Gilchrist and company did it in 2004 — looks to be Maryland’s only key to opening the door for a spot in the field of 68.
So what’s next for Maryland?
The silver lining in Sunday’s loss to the Tar Heels was another tremendous performance by Stoglin, playing his first game at the Dean Dome with everything on the line for the Terps.
Not only has Stoglin improved from his early season struggles to adjust to the college game, but it now looks like Gary Williams has the makings of a special player on his hands the next three years.
But now, Maryland (18-11, 7-7 ACC) must turn its attention to the final week of the regular season (a game at Miami Wednesday followed by Virginia at home on Saturday) and the near-impossible task of winning the ACC tournament to make it to the Big Dance.
The Terps’ three seniors must take a long look at themselves to determine how they want to be remembered in College Park. Aside from Gregory’s steady improvement, it’s been a terribly disappointing year for the group.
Entering the season, the biggest question facing the Terps would be how much the three seniors and junior Sean Mosley would step up to fill roles more critical to the team’s success. They — or some combination of the four — would need to provide the leadership and much of the production left behind by Vasquez, Eric Hayes, and Landon Milbourne.
With the Terps now finding themselves locked into the crosshairs of the NIT and needing to rely on a freshman as the only consistent scoring complement to Jordan Williams, the verdict to that question has become pretty clear.
It hasn’t been enough. And it’s why the Terps find themselves on the outside looking in with March on the way.