CHAPEL HILL – Kentwan Balmer had hardly rolled off of Maryland quarterback Chris Turner when he looked up to the Terrapins' sideline and raised his arms in celebration.
It was appropriate that the last big play of the game was a defensive one as Balmer's pressure forced a fourth-down incompletion to preserve North Carolina's 16-13 victory against the Terps.
Balmer, a senior defensive tackle, was one of the last players off the field after the game, soaking in the excitement from the homecoming crowd.
"This team's played so hard and come up short so many times," Balmer said. "It was just big. Everybody in the stadium went crazy. You couldn't even put it into words, what it meant to this team and what it meant to me.
"I felt like we deserved it. Can't nobody tell me no different right now. We fought and fought and fought and fought, and this is the reward of our work."
It was the fourth home game – out of five – for the Tar Heels (3-6, 2-3 in the ACC) that was decided by six or less points this season.
With the win, Carolina kept alive its slim hopes of becoming bowl-eligible. To do that, the Tar Heels can't lose again during the regular season.
"We still believe we can get to this bowl game," senior defensive end Hilee Taylor said. "We practice like we're national champions. That's what I love about this team. We never give up.
"Now it's like a three-game season. We've got to win the next three to get to the postseason."
UNC coach Butch Davis praised his players after the game for their resiliency in the face of not only the many close games they have been in but also the previous week's surprising blowout loss.
"I told them in the locker room one thing I was very proud of was their perserverance," Davis said. "It's been a tough last three or four weeks. It would have been very, very easy for this football team to maybe lose their enthusiasm to play or to point fingers.
"When you go through adversity, it shows a lot about the character of your team."
Davis also called the defensive performance against the Terps (4-5, 1-4) his team's best of the season.
"The story of the day was defense," Davis said. "A lot of guys on the defense contributed to this. It seemed like on every possession, a defensive lineman came up with a big play."
Carolina got the bulk of its points from three Connor Barth field goals but got the score they would need to win from one big play on offense.
UNC quarterback T.J. Yates hit Hakeem Nicks over the middle for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 7:33 to go in the third quarter to put Carolina up 16-3.
It was Nicks' fourth touchdown catch of the year and his first in six weeks.
But Maryland responded immediately with an eight-play, 80-yard drive capped by a five-yard touchdown run by Keon Lattimore and then added a field goal with six minutes to go in the game.
Starting UNC tailback Johnny White rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries, but just 25 of those came after the first quarter.
Yates' touchdown pass was the longest play of the day for the Tar Heels, who had 259 yards of total offense.
Neither team had much success offensively in the first half.
Maryland and Carolina combined for 314 yards of total offense in the half and nobody got into the end zone. The Terps only had three yards of total offense in the first quarter as the Tar Heels held the ball for more than 11 minutes.
Barth hit a pair of 45-yard field goals in the final minute of the first half to give the Tar Heels a 9-3 lead going into the locker room.
The second was set up when safety Trimane Goddard intercepted a Turner pass and the Tar Heels moved the ball 31 yards in 36 seconds.
Barth's first field goal of the game was set up by a wacky drive in which North Carolina fumbled the ball on a third-down play but forced a fumble on the fumble return and recovered to take over again with a first down.
Nine plays later, Barth hit from 23 yards out.
Maryland's Obi Egekeze tied the game 3-3 with 3:34 to go in the second quarter.
"It was ugly, but it was a 'W' no matter what," Yates said. "We kept fighting to get points on the board and the defense held them off."