Sandwiched in between was a game that felt more like the sort of “testimonial match” that an English soccer club puts on to honor a departing legend. To be fair, the Maryland Terrapins did not retreat into their shell, hanging around a contest in which the lead was still only single-digits with 13 minutes remaining. That’s when the No. 6 Tar Heels—clad in uniforms that maker Nike labels “Hyper Elite Platinum” yet look more like “Woollen Gym Gray”—went on a decisive 26-3 run to push the advantage to 31 with 6:55 left before going on to defeat Maryland 88-64.
Where there’s a senior class salutation, there is always a list of superlatives. Senior Tyler Zeller scored a game-high 30 points to go with eight rebounds, the third 30-point game of his college career. Although the six-foot 10-inch Zeller only shot 5-of-12 from the field, he converted a whopping 20-of-23 free throws attempts. It’s the most free throws in Smith Center history and one short of York Larese’s UNC record of 21 against Duke in 1959.
Kendall Marshall dished out eight assists (with only one turnover), giving him 289 this season and passing Ed Cota to set a new UNC single-season record. Marshall also tie Bobby Hurley for the third highest single-season tally in conference history and leaves him only 14 short of the ACC record set by Craig Neal of Georgia Tech in 1988. And, by the way, John Henson’s 19 points tied his career high.
In truth, the game was a ragged affair that saw both teams shoot under 40 percent from the field. But when perimeter shots aren’t falling, it becomes paramount to work the ball as close to the basket as possible. The Tar Heels did that, outscoring the outmatched Terrapins 42-28 in the paint.
Carolina head coach Roy Williams continued tradition by starting all five seniors: Zeller, Justin Watts, David Dupont, Stewart Cooper and Patrick Crouch. The difference, however, is that while Dean Smith used to leave his seniors on the floor for several respectable yet agonizing minutes, Williams signaled an end to tonight’s salutatory bow after about 90 seconds.
Nevertheless, UNC’s large lead allowed its seniors to return for an encore. In what Marshall labeled a “storybook ending,” Crouch hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left, and as the final buzzer sounded, Dupont drilled his own 3-pointer that left the Terrapins fuming, Williams apologizing to Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and the Tar Heels hoisting Dupont onto their shoulders like he was Rudy Ruettiger.
“I’m talking to Patty (Crouch) in the locker room and he told me that’s the best feeling he’s ever felt in his life,” Marshall said. “I just sat there and thought about that. Those are powerful words. You experience a lot in life, not just in baskeball but with your family, throughout school, with your friends … It’s something to be able to say that playing basketball for the University of North Carolina and hitting a shot in front of the home crowd on senior night is the best feeling of his life.”
Although Maryland (16-13, 6-9 ACC) never led, they remained within striking distance throughout the first half. Sophomore Terrell Stoglin, the ACC’s leading scorer, paced the Terps with 10 points in the opening period, although he shot only 3-for-10. For the game, Stoglin contributed 16 points but only shot 4-for-18.
“Try to crowd him, try to favor his left side, try to use our length … There’s no question we tried to emphasize him,” said Williams. “Reggie [Bullock] did a nice job, Kendall had him sometimes, J. Watts had him sometimes, so we had fresh guys on him and I think that was important, too. [Stoglin] played 31 minutes, but his is a hard 31 minutes because he keeps going.”
The attention paid to Stoglin opened an opportunity that freshman guard Nick Faust seized. Averaging eight points per game coming in, Faust scored a team-high 17 off 7-for-11 shooting, including three 3-pointers. But while Faust contributed four assists, he also coughed up five turnovers.
Nevertheless, this evening belonged to the Tar Heels (26-4, 13-2 ACC), who will face arch-rival Duke Saturday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium with the ACC regular-season title on the line. The question hovering over all of the revelry, however, is precisely which players stepped onto the Smith Center floor for the final time.
However, Zeller—already named Academic All-American of the Year last week— likely solidified his claim to ACC Player of the Year with his performance against the Terps. When asked his thoughts on playing his last game in Chapel Hill, Zeller was fittingly thankful.
“It’s something I’m going to miss tremendously. The crowd’s always great. Being able to play for North Carolina and be on national television, all of that is super. It’s something I will miss, but I’m glad I could experience and be a part of it.”
Of equal-to-greater significance, however, are the futures of Henson, Marshall and Harrison Barnes, each of whom will have to weigh the joy brought by their college career against the lure of a lucrative NBA contract.
“This was Tyler’s last game on the Smith Center court in front of the Smith Center crowd,” I said to Henson. “Have you given any thought to how you’ll feel about that when it happens to you?”
“It’s going to be a special moment,” Henson began before the import of the query triggered a sheepish smile. “Uh, you know, so, ah … good question.”