COLLEGE PARK, MD --- North Carolina's surge as a basketball team to be taken seriously is no longer a quiet one.
The Tar Heels came into frenzied Comcast Center on Wednesday night expecting a back-yard brawl with a desperate Maryland team in dire need of enhancing its NCAA Tournament resume.
Instead of getting into a muck-fest with the physical Terrapins, UNC mixed in a blend of toughness, finesse and high IQ hoops in its 79-68 victory that should have reminded many Maryland fans of so many baby-blue squads that have left this campus with a similar triumphs over the last half-century.
North Carolina is good, folks, and the Tar Heels are getting better.
"They really have come in a long way," UNC coach Roy Williams said about his team. "They've bought into the sense-of-urgency idea, they've bought into the unselfishness, trying to do what we ask them to do. And they compete. I'm really proud of them."
Carolina (22-8, 12-5 ACC) has won six consecutive games since a narrow loss at Duke when Williams moved to a smaller starting lineup replacing 6-foot-9 Desmond Hubert with 6-6 sharpshooter P.J. Hairston. Of concern to Williams when he made the switch was rebounding and interior defense.
At times, UNC has struggled in those areas, but for the most part, the Heels have held their own and then some. This win at Maryland is such an example.
The Terps (20-10, 8-9) had three more rebounds overall in the first half, among them were seven on the offensive end good for 14 second-chance points. But North Carolina's will to win with its new approach eventually forced the Terrapins to match up. UNC had two more boards in the final 20 minutes and allowed just six second-chance points.
Carolina had to scrap and fight while not losing touch with its skill-game that is more impressive each time it steps on the floor. Hitting perimeter shots has become a huge weapon, and UNC drained 10 of 24 on this night. It was a key factor.
But so were UNC's 11 steals. The Heels were scrappy, had arms in all kinds of passing lanes, so much that one time Reggie Bullock looked like a defensive back in football tracking down a long pass he got a hand on, preventing Maryland from converting an easy basket.
"On that play, I was actually thinking I was a defensive back," Bullock said, laughing.
The two most obvious examples of UNC's growth came spanning both halves and with six minutes remaining.
North Carolina closed the first half on a 10-0 run to take a 34-27 lead. The Heels continued to push to start the second half, as the run eventually reached 20-4 and a 44-31 advantage.
The other came after a 7-point flurry where Maryland turned three turnovers two by freshman Marcus Paige into a 63-57 game with 6:08 remaining. The maturing Heels responded with a 6-0 spurt, aided by Paige's third 3-pointer of the night as the shot clock neared zero.
That was a big-boy response by Carolina.
"We just had to be mentally tough," said Bullock, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds. "We took a timeout, we got back to the huddle and started making plays."
Bullock and Hairston (22 points, eight rebounds) personified Carolina's mentality on this night. They were tough, they were smooth, and they were winners. They were also infectious.
"I don't think it's just the lineup," senior Dexter Strickland said. "I think it's our guys just having more experience on the floor, just knowing what we have to do to get a win. Everybody's playing together, the team chemistry is there, and everybody's is playing hard."
With Maryland moving on to the Big Ten after next season, if this is UNC's last visit to College Park in the foreseeable future, the Tar Heels made the most of it. Several more highly regarded North Carolina teams haven't fared so well.
"I've brought some really good teams in here," Williams said. "We won a national championship in '09 but we didn't win here. But I really like the way our kids (played)
"They should feel very good about what they've done, but we hopefully have a lot of games to play."
As unlikely as it seemed six weeks ago, the Tar Heels just may have quite a few more games to play.