COLLEGE PARK, Md. ---Nothing came easy for North Carolina Saturday afternoon in its road clash at Maryland, but the Tar Heels played solid second half defense---holding the Terrapins to 38.7 percent shooting over the game's final 20 minutes---while making several clutch shots of its own on its way to a 83-74 victory.
The win is Carolina's 20th on the season, and improves the team's ACC mark to 7-1 heading into Wednesday night's first place showdown with Duke in the Smith Center.
"I think it (this win) will help us a lot," said senior big man Tyler Zeller, whose 22 points led the way for UNC. "Last year we had a lot of games like this but it shows that we can be tough enough in the end to make the plays and get the stops we need. There are a few things we want to fix down the stretch, but it's nice to fix that now instead of in the NCAA Tournament when it's life or death."
"We felt really good in the locker room," said head coach Roy Williams. "That was a good win and we hit some tough shots down the stretch. The other night (at Wake Forest) we couldn't hit anything but we won the game because of our defense and rebounding."
"Tonight we made some shots down the stretch and at the same time I thought it was our best defensive game in the second half (all season)," Williams added.
UNC built an early 15-9 lead but Maryland rallied through what was mostly a nip-and-tuck opening half.
The Terrapins held UNC to 42.4 percent shooting in the first half while making 43.3 percent of its own shots in building a slim 40-37 halftime advantage.
Things could have been worse for UNC at halftime if it hadn't been for the solid play of Zeller, who scored 14 first half points on five-of-eight shooting and four free throws.
"Zeller was big inside for us scoring," said Williams. "In the first half our guys didn't get very low. Zeller was our only guy scoring."
Maryland came out fired up in the second half, taking it right to the Tar Heels as they built its biggest lead, 48-39, two and a half minutes into the final period.
"It was a tough game. Maryland has always been tough on us," said junior forward John Henson, who posted a double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds. "At home they feed off the crowd and (Terrell) Stoglin is a great scorer, and they held on down low. It was a tough game tonight coming to their house."
Things could have taken a really bad turn for the Tar Heels, but they showed some grit and a little heart to ensure that a repeat of the debacle at Florida State wouldn't happen again.
UNC got a basket by Zeller and a three-pointer by Kendall Marshall to pull within 48-44, but Maryland stayed in command through the 12:00 mark, when Zeller picked up his fourth foul with the Terps leading 54-52.
Minutes later UNC also lost Marshall to a fourth foul, and both players were off the court at the same time for multiple minutes.
It was a golden opportunity for the Terrapins to take control, but the Tar Heels stepped up their defensive intensity and kept Maryland from pulling away.
"When Zeller was out I thought we could've made a run," said Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon. "And then we made some mistakes defensively and couldn't rebound."
"Anytime you've got Z---Mr. Double-Double---and Kendall, our main assist guy, out, that's hard," added Harrison Barnes.
"I think the biggest thing was that we really did a good job defensively," said Williams. "Looking at the stats they shot 38 percent in the second half. They did miss some open shots but I thought our defense did some good things."
Just after the midway point of the second half Barnes and Henson started taking over, making up for quiet first halves by connecting on a flurry of key shots.
It was Barnes who re-gave Carolina the lead at 59-57 with a three-pointer inside the 10-minute mark, and then Henson converted back-to-back baskets to give UNC a 65-60 advantage at the 6:30 mark.
But Maryland refused to go away quietly, as a Pe'Shon Howard three-pointer made the score 69-67 with over three minutes still to play.
But down the stretch Carolina continued to apply pressure, as Henson scored on a shot that was actually 'goal tended' by Maryland forward Alex Len, and Barnes stepped out of a timeout and buried a clutch jumper at the 1:01 mark, giving UNC a 76-70 lead that essentially put the game away.
"Down the stretch Harrison made some big shots for us," said Williams. "We got a couple follow shots from some people. I think Reggie (Bullock) got one and P.J. (Hairston) did as well. It was good that we got some offense down the stretch."
"Coach ran a good play and gave me a lot of space and I was able to create," said Barnes of his shot that gave UNC a six-point lead in the final minute. "I had Reggie and P.J. on the wings, and I was able to hit the shot."
For Barnes, who was questionable coming into the game with a sore ankle, it took a little while to get comfortable on the court, but he settled in and finished with a respectable showing of 18 points and eight rebounds.
"The ankle is sore. I felt it a little bit during the game, but it got a little better as the game went on," he said.
For Barnes and the rest of his UNC teammates, Saturday's win was about survival. It was about toughness. It was about finding a way to get it done.
"You talk about environment---Maryland has got some passionate fans. But I think it was a real good win for us, especially with the situation when we came out just like Florida State and were down early," Barnes said. "We didn't want to give in. We didn't want to give up. We didn't want to give the game away."
And with the win at Maryland now in hand, it's on to the hated Blue Devils.