(AP) — North Carolina took a big step toward securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament by winning their second consecutive ACC regular-season title.
An impressive showing in the conference tournament would likely help them lock one up.
Coming off a first-round bye, the fourth-ranked and top-seeded Tar Heels open tournament play Friday seeking a fourth straight win over eighth-seeded Maryland.
North Carolina (27-4) concluded its regular-season schedule Saturday with an impressive 88-70 rout of then-No. 4 Duke on the road to claim the ACC title. All five starters scored in double figures for the Tar Heels, who seem to be finally living up to their No. 1 preseason ranking.
“In the beginning of the year, we kind of just expected it to happen,” senior Tyler Zeller said. “We expected, not necessarily to be where we were last year, but we knew how good we could be and we weren’t making the necessary steps to completely get there.”
North Carolina has outscored opponents by an average of 15.1 points during a seven-game winning streak – including an 88-64 thumping of Maryland (17-14) on Feb. 29 behind Zeller’s 30 points.
Zeller, fellow big man John Henson and leading scorer Harrison Barnes (17.4 points per game) all received first-team All-ACC honors – marking the first time North Carolina has ever had three players recognized.
“We are ecstatic about this announcement,” coach Roy Williams told the school’s official website. “I have always felt the teams that win should get the awards, but it’s driven by great player performances and that’s what they have done. To go 14-2 in the league against what proved to be the most demanding schedule is really a great accomplishment for our players. I’m happy for them, and hopefully they will be hungrier to do even more.”
The Tar Heels are surely looking to get off to a better start in this year’s tournament after coming out sluggish last season.
After overcoming a 19-point, second-half deficit to defeat Miami in the quarterfinals, North Carolina rallied from 14 down to beat Clemson in overtime in the semifinals before ultimately losing to Duke in the title game.
“I think you have to be able to pick up your focus, your concentration, your effort, just your play in general,” Zeller said. “You lose, you’re done. And for me, that’s the end of my college career.”
The Terrapins ended the regular season in the midst of a three-game skid but got back on track with Thursday’s 82-60 first-round win over Wake Forest. Sophomore Terrell Stoglin – the ACC scoring leader (21.3 ppg) – had a game-high 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Stoglin wasn’t happy about only being an all-ACC second-team selection.
“I’m always going to have a chip on my shoulder, but once the voting came out I had a bigger one,” said Stoglin, who’s totaled 36 points on 30.8 percent (12 for 39) shooting in two meetings with the Tar Heels this season.
In addition to Stoglin, freshman Nick Faust also came up big Thursday with a season-best 19 points.
Maryland outrebounded the Demon Deacons 39-24 and shot a season-high 54.4 percent from the field.
“That’s the best, most complete game we’ve played all year. We defended. We rebounded. We executed. We shared the ball,” coach Mark Turgeon said.
“We talked about just about dialing in and also having fun. I think the guys tried to have fun (Thursday). More importantly, they trusted their teammates on both ends of the floor. That’s been a hard thing for us this year but (Thursday) we did it.”