Nothing has ever been easy for North Carolina when they play Maryland, seemingly. After trailing in the first half, Carolina took its biggest lead of 11 points with 6:59 remaining and even led by ten points with 1:48 left, but it couldn't be that easy. And it wasn't.
Carolina went 1-of-6 from the foul line in the final 56 seconds, and Maryland had the ball with seven seconds left, down just three points.
Last year, it was eerily similar. Carolina was up two, Maryland got the ball with 12.7 second left and Alyssa Thomas hit the game-tying lay-up before winning in overtime. This time, Maryland got the ball with seven seconds left, down three points. This time, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt decided she was not going to let the Tar Heels lose.
"I actually lost (Maryland sharp-shooter Katie Rutan) at the end," Ruffin-Pratt said with a sheepish smile. "I lost her. She ran baseline and I didn't see her, so I just ran as fast as I could and blocked the shot."
Even then, it wasn't over. Maryland had one last shot with a second remaining, and Rutan got enough separation to get a shot off. She didn't make it. "(Rutan) got that last three up, I was just praying that it didn't go in," Ruffin-Pratt said. "I contested it, but she shouldn't have caught it from the beginning. But it didn't go in."
No, it didn't go in. But that hasn't been how this series has typically gone. Under head coach Brenda Frese, Maryland is almost always good shooting, fundamentally sound, athletic and tough. The Terrapins can score points in bunches, and their defense can make even a routine pass seem like an adventure.
They are frustratingly efficient, and they know how to irritate their opponents. Yes, it's the way they play: in-your-face, aggressive and confident. But it could just be the way that in crucial moments, it seems like almost everything breaks Maryland's way, despite their opponent's best efforts.
This night was no different against the Terrapins, a team that the Tar Heels had lost to four straight times and six out of the last seven. And yet, it was different. Normally, the Carolina-Maryland games are high-scoring affairs. Not this time. There were field goal droughts for each team of at least five minutes. Carolina's longest was 5:25 (in the first half), and almost every UNC offensive possession felt like a struggle.
The Tar Heels had to fight for every inch of real estate: on post-ups, even making a swing-through move after catching the ball to get some space. And Carolina has had enough trouble as it is on offense this year. Sometimes, it seems as if the Tar Heels have offended the basket in such a way that it spits out any shot, even after it tantalizingly spins around the lip of the rim before falling out.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, they are an excellent defensive team themselves, and they fight hard. They changed up defenses on Maryland. They trapped. And ultimately, they held Maryland without a field goal for the first 8:07 of the second half.
There is no time limit in women's basketball to get the ball across halfcourt, and Carolina made it as difficult as they could on Maryland to set up its offense. They pressured the ball, contested passes and sent surprise double teams at Maryland's guards that would have made Dean Smith smile. As sophomore Danielle Butts put it, Carolina sped up Maryland by slowing them down.
"The key was to slow them down, run the clock down so they would be pressured ... just slow the clock down really sort of get them (thinking), ‘Okay, well, we've got a certain amount of time to score'," Butts said. "It's not like what they're normally used to, just walking the ball up the court. We just tried to slow everything down so they were in a time pressure to score."
It's physical. And not in the typical sense of that word, which somehow seems too euphemistic for this game. It's physical, as in, there will be blood. (And there was.) There were multiple occasions a player from both teams went tumbling to the floor after seemingly having rebounding position and being yanked down from behind.
"It's always an intense game, a really physical game," Ruffin-Pratt said. "Both us and Maryland are physical and strong, so it's just kind of like a battle of who's the strongest. And whoever is the strongest at the end, that's who's going to win."
Mental toughness is what helped the Tar Heels, in the end. So many close Maryland games have been heartbreakers for recent Carolina teams, unable to make that play or two necessary to win a game like that. Not this year. No matter what went wrong, Carolina just kept fighting, and that was the difference from the recent games.
"I think this team just has a lot more heart than any of the other teams I've been on since I've been here," Ruffin-Pratt said. "We play with a lot more heart and a lot more emotion, and we trust each other a lot more than we have in the past. I think this team can go a long way if we just stick together and keep playing hard."