Near midcourt, Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland were standing and grinning, each with his arms around the shoulders of his teammate. They did not wave their arms to incite the Smith Center crowd. They didn't have to. All they had to do was stand there, grin, and listen to the crescendo.
Already trailing 28-13 because of an unexpected tornado of Carolina defensive intensity, Maryland had tried to run a pick and roll near midcourt. This is a play that has occasionally given Carolina trouble this season.
Not this time. James Michael McAdoo jumped out from behind the screening Alex Len like an evil teenager trying to scare a bunch of naïve trick-or-treaters. Strickland fought all the way over the top of the screen, and Seth Allen was soon pinched near midcourt. Len ran towards the goal holding his hand in the air as if he was wide open, but Allen had bigger problems--he couldn't see the big center because of the harassment of Strickland and McAdoo.
Allen eventually found an outlet, and the Terps got the ball to Jake Layman. He managed one dribble before McAdoo swiped the ball off Layman's leg. The Terrapin freshman retreated to pick up the ball, and as he did so, you could almost see him relax. Whew. Finally. Let me take just one second to rest.
It was a bad decision. As soon as Layman hesitated, the swarming hands of Strickland slapped the ball away, into the waiting hands of Bullock. The Tar Heels tried to start yet another fast break--they would finish the half with a 14-2 advantage in points off turnovers--but Layman grabbed Bullock to prevent what might have been a 4-on-1 break.
That's just one possession out of dozens in Saturday's first half. But it was one of the most emblematic of a Tar Heel defense that simply refused to let the Terrapins have any oxygen.
As Strickland and Bullock congratulated each other, a low roar began in the student section, spread throughout the lower bowl, crept into the upper deck, and soon 20,865 people were delivering a standing ovation for...what, exactly? Defense, perhaps. The big early lead, certainly. Mostly, though, it was just sheer appreciation of the kind of hustle and intensity Roy Williams has been asking for since mid-October.
It had to be seen in person to be appreciated. The players on the court left you no choice. There wasn't much you could do if you were in that crowd, other than stand and make as much noise as possible.
"I thought Carolina was great, and I thought their crowd was great," said Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon. "I thought their crowd was much better today than it was on senior night when we played here last year. It was a hungry team and a hungry crowd."
Which came first: the hungry team or the hungry crowd? It's hard to say, but there is absolutely no doubt that the Tar Heel hustle in the first 20 minutes fueled the frenzy. Pick your favorite effort play:
Desmond Hubert played terrific post defense on a pair of post-up attempts by Shaquille Cleare on the same possession with 14:45 left in the first half. Eventually, frustrated by Hubert's success in funneling him to the baseline, Cleare took it upon himself to barrel to the middle and fling a wild shot, which was promptly rejected by McAdoo into the hands of Strickland, who took off on another fast break chance.
Ninety seconds later, McAdoo refused to give up on a deflection, following it into the crowd, spearing it with one hand, and then pegging it off Layman from a good 10 paces like a bully pinpointing the helpless kid in dodge ball to save the UNC possession.
The Tar Heels grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, giving them 34 over the last two games. Bullock picked one up midway through the first half with no technique at all. It wasn't that Maryland failed to box him out; in fact, Allen did have contact with Bullock and also had inside position. But Bullock simply outran Allen and two other Terps to track down a Brice Johnson miss. Then, this being the day of Bullock's career-high 24 points, he turned and fired the ball through the net to stretch Carolina's lead to two touchdowns.
"All those plays build the momentum," said Strickland, who had four steals. "We really had it going in the first half. Reggie hit all those shots and we got steals and fast break dunks, and that built the momentum."
That momentum eventually crested into the moment of congratulation between Strickland and Bullock, two upperclassmen who had spent the better part of an entire half taking advantage of a younger Terp team that simply got behind and soon found everything--the crowd, the defense, the rims, their mismatched red-and-black shoes, everything--against them.
That's what is supposed to happen at home. That's why everyone was out of their seats, why for just the second time this year (UNLV being the other) the Smith Center crowd seemed to see something that it recognized. What was it, exactly? What's the description we're looking for here?
"It was pretty in the first half," Williams said. "I don't mind telling you. It looked like North Carolina basketball."
What he said.