CHAPEL HILL There was a time not long ago, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said on Tuesday night, when his team’s confidence was so low it wondered not when it would win again, but against what team – and how.
After his team’s 75-63 victory against Maryland at the Smith Center, Williams surveyed the crowd in front of him at his postgame press conference – a group that didn’t include many formidable physiques.
“We didn’t think we could beat five of you guys, at some points,” Williams said, drawing some laughs. “And you all don’t look like that impressive as a basketball team, to be honest with you. I guess I could include myself in that group, too.”
Williams was in the mood to crack a joke or two after this, a victory that included his team’s best start of the season – a 19-3 run to begin the game that had the Terrapins playing catch up the rest of the way. Maryland for the final time arrived in Chapel Hill as a member of the ACC, and in the final minutes of a UNC victory that lacked late drama the Smith Center crowd serenaded the Terrapins with a chant of “A-C-C! A-C-C!”
UNC (15-7, 5-4) and Maryland (13-10, 5-5) had played some classics in this building – games remembered for dramatic finishes or dramatic comebacks or dramatic dunks or shots. The one on Tuesday night didn’t have much of any of that, though the Tar Heels had little to complain about after their fourth consecutive conference victory.
UNC now has a winning record in the ACC for the first time this season, and its 1-4 start is becoming a more distant memory.
“I think we’re a pretty confident bunch,” said UNC sophomore guard Marcus Paige, who scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half. “We understand that being .500 or around .500 isn’t what our goals are, or where we want to be. But after starting the way we did, it’s not a bad place to be.”
Paige played the most significant role in UNC’s victory on Tuesday night. After a relatively quiet first half, he followed a recent pattern of asserting himself during the second half.
During one second-half stretch that lasted about seven minutes, Paige scored 16 of the Tar Heels’ 18 points. He scored the first of those 16 points with a 3-pointer that gave UNC a 54-44 lead with about 9 ½ minutes to play, and the last of those points came on a free throw with two minutes and 23 seconds remaining.
Paige carried the Tar Heels during that run, and his scoring was especially important because after its rough start Maryland didn’t fold. The Terrapins kept trying to come back, and kept trying, but they trailed by nine points after Paige’s final free throw and never came any closer during the final two minutes.
Williams, who hasn’t been able to explain Paige’s proclivity to follow mediocre halves with sensational ones, described Paige as a “tough competitor.” Even so, Paige smiled and shook his head when asked if it was fun in the second half, trading points – four of them coming on one play after he was fouled on a made 3-pointer –with Maryland’s entire team.
“I don’t know if made it more fun,” Paige said. “It made it more interesting, certainly.”
In addition to Paige’s 25 points, which were the most he’d scored in an ACC game, UNC sophomore Brice Johnson came off the bench and finished with 19 points – the most he’d scored in an ACC game – and made all eight of his field goal attempts.
Johnson excelled throughout, but especially later in the first half after the Tar Heels cooled following their 19-3 run to start the game. Maryland twice cut UNC’s lead to three points, and Johnson provided some offense before halftime while his teammates struggled.
“We’re very confident,” Johnson said. “We know we can be very good when we play with a sense of urgency like we did in the first five minutes of the game. … We play like that every night, we’re going to keep this streak going.”
One streak, though, will likely end with this game. UNC and Maryland first played in 1924, and the Tar Heels and Terrapins have played annually since 1945.
In their final trip here before leaving for the Big Ten the Terrapins shot 39.3 percent, committed 16 turnovers and never recovered from the first five minutes, when they were down 16 points to the delight of an enthusiastic audience at the Smith Center.
For UNC, it was “a fun” start, Williams said – and one that belied the work ahead. The Tar Heels never trailed on Tuesday, and the outcome was never all that much in doubt in a victory that gives UNC its longest winning streak of the season.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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