It's last call for Maryland to get off the NCAA bubble

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Senior Night a chance to beat tourney team in UNC

Three weeks ago, North Carolina was Maryland -- big, fast, young and talented, but struggling with ball-handling, lacking consistency and with an uncertain NCAA tournament future. Suddenly, however, the Tar Heels have won five straight games and likely punched their ticket for the tournament for the ninth time in the last 10 years.

When North Carolina (21-8, 11-5) travels to Maryland (20-9, 8-8) on Wednesday, it will be a battle of mentor Roy Williams and disciple Mark Turgeon and of similarly constructed teams, of which one put together a timely run and the other desperately wants to do the same in its last chance.

"They figured it out," Turgeon said, with a hint of envy.

Up next
North Carolina at Maryland
When » Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where » Comcast Center
TV » ESPN

UNC's streak was sparked by swapping 6-5 sophomore P.J. Hairston for 6-9 sophomore Desmond Hubert, leaving the Tar Heels with a four-guard lineup. The primary ball-handlers, senior Dexter Strickland and freshman Marcus Paige, have combined for 54 assists and 12 turnovers during the streak. The primary shooters, Hairston and junior Reggie Bullock, have gone a combined 30-for-70 from beyond the arc. Mega-talented 6-9 sophomore James Michael McAdoo has averaged 15.4 points during the run as the lone frontcourt player.

Tougher to guard, tough matchups. If we stay big, we're always going to have one really bad matchup out there. When Hairston and Bullock are shooting the ball well, they're hard to beat," Turgeon said. "It opens it up for McAdoo. He's become a much better player since they went to a small lineup."

After losing four players to the 2012 NBA Draft, all selected among the top 17 picks, Williams figured the Tar Heels would struggle early, especially with a freshman at the point. After totaling nearly as many turnovers (21) as assists (23) in November, Paige has improved dramatically.

"We're so young," Williams said. "Getting them to understand something quickly and be able to put it into play on the court is something that all young teams struggle with. We've got a bunch of teams in our league that are really, really young and struggle with that quite a bit."

With four freshmen and three sophomores in the rotation, Maryland fits the description. The Terps are so young that in Wednesday's final home game, they will honor only two seniors -- guard Logan Aronhalt and forward James Padgett. With NCAA tournament hopes in the balance and a chance for resume-boosting win, both are focused on the outcome more than the celebration. Turgeon indicated that both seniors are likely to start.

"Starting position isn't everything to me," Aronhalt said. "I'd rather get the win."

Another likely starter is junior Pe'Shon Howard, who snapped out of a slump to play his best ACC game this year (eight points, four assists, two turnovers, two steals) Saturday in a win at Wake Forest. Howard provides hope that the Terps can solidify the troublesome point guard slot with an experienced ball-handler and quality defender.

"He's one of our smartest defenders," Turgeon said. "When he dialed in defensively we're pretty good. It's a good feeling to know he can do that."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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Kevin Dunleavy

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner