- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It has been 50 weeks since Selection Sunday 2006, and Maryland coach Gary Williams is still stunned his team was left out of last season's NCAA Tournament. The Terrapins finished 8-8 in ACC play last season and then won a game in the conference tournament.
But when the 65-team field for the NCAA Tournament was announced, the Terps were left out and relegated to playing in the NIT for the second straight season.
"We were close to making the NCAA Tournament," Williams said. "We were the first ACC team to go .500 in the league and win a game in the ACC tournament and not make the NCAAs."
Williams shouldn't worry about facing that same fate again in two weeks when the field is announced for this season's Tournament. Maryland all but punched its ticket to the NCAAs with a stunning 89-87 comeback upset of No. 5 North Carolina on Sunday night in front of a soldout crowd of 17,950 at Comcast Center.
Maryland (22-7, 8-6 ACC) won its fifth consecutive game and ended a five-game losing streak to the Tar Heels (24-5, 10-4 ACC), who no longer can seem certain about being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina has lost three of its last seven games after winning 20 of its first 22.
"This is very frustrating," Tar Heels forward Tyler Hansbrough said. "We can't crumble whenever the game gets tight. We have to be tough."
The Terrapins were much tougher in the second half, when they erased a 12-point deficit with about seven minutes to play. During the final minutes, Maryland especially showed the composure and fortitude it lacked during the previous two seasons. Maryland had played in 11 straight NCAA tournaments, winning the 2002 national championship, before its current two-year drought.
"We were just tired of losing games like this," said Maryland senior D.J. Strawberry, who scored a career-high 27 points on 12-for-18 shooting with four rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes. "We can be one of the best teams in the country and we can be one of the worst teams in the country. We've been both."
At times, Maryland looked like one of the most dangerous teams in the country against the Tar Heels. Trailing 82-81 with 2:15 remaining, the Terps scored on four straight possessions -- making six consecutive foul shots, around Strawberry's short jumper in the lane -- to go ahead 89-84 with 56.6 seconds left.
But then North Carolina freshman Wayne Ellington drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing to pull the Tar Heels within 89-87 with 48.5 seconds to play. On the Terrapins' next possession, freshman point guard Greivis Vasquez fell down while driving the lane. He tried to pass the ball to Strawberry in the right corner, but the basketball sailed out of bounds. Carolina took possession with 25.1 seconds left.
The Tar Heels called a timeout with 18.6 seconds to play, then passed around the perimeter until there were only six seconds remaining. Freshman forward Brandan Wright caught the basketball, drove the lane, and was fouled by Strawberry with 3.5 seconds to play. Wright, who came into the game shooting only 56.1 percent on free throws, missed his first attempt.
After a Maryland timeout, Wright deliberately missed the second attempt. Hansbrough had a chance to grab the rebound and try to score, but he fumbled the basketball on the floor until time expired.
"We lacked focus," North Carolina senior Reyshawn Terry said. "We didn't convert the way we should down the stretch. We had another breakdown. We keep hitting the same wall. It's making me a little nervous, honestly. I don't think we are showing what we need to be showing right now to achieve our goals."
With only a week left in the regular season, the Tar Heels are beginning to resemble the Connecticut team of a year ago. The Huskies had perhaps the most talented roster in the 65-team field (Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone each was selected in the first 23 picks of last year's NBA draft), but they never seemed to gel as a team. The top-seeded Huskies were upset by No. 11 seed George Mason 86-84 in the regional finals.
The Tar Heels are similarly talented. Wright, a 6-foot-9 freshman from Nashville, could very well be the No. 3 choice in the NBA draft (behind Ohio State's Greg Oden and Texas' Kevin Durant) if he decides to leave after only one season in college. Hansbrough, a sophomore from Poplar Bluff, Mo., might be the ACC player of the year, even though he's not the most talented player on his team. Ellington is a deadly shooter who scores in bunches, and freshman Ty Lawson is a lightning-quick point guard.
North Carolina is deeper than any team in the country -- 11 Tar Heels played seven minutes or more against Maryland -- and yet that might be its biggest detriment. Coach Roy Williams sends waves of players into the game and, at times, it seems his team struggles to find chemistry and rhythm.
Terry, one of only two scholarship seniors on North Carolina's roster, also suggested the Tar Heels lack another important characteristic.
"This is what happens to us against a team with that mean streak," Terry said. "I guess we are too finesse."
The Terrapins were definitely more motivated -- and for good reason. At the end of January, the Terrapins were largely considered road kill once again after they lost five of their first seven ACC games. Local pundits even began to wonder whether Williams, who rebuilt his alma mater's program after the scandal that followed the tragic death of Len Bias, had lost his winning touch -- or, worse, motivation and desire to keep coaching.
"You get criticized around here when you lose," Williams said. "That's part of the deal, I guess, when you've won a national championship. ... How many teams in the ACC have won national championships? Four. You think it's easy? If you ask 500 people in Ohio who are the top two teams in college basketball the last 50 years, they'd all say Duke and North Carolina. That's what we're measured against."
If those are the teams the Terrapins are going to be measured against on Selection Sunday, then Williams should like his team's position. The Terrapins were 3-6 going into a Feb. 11 home game against Duke and beat the Blue Devils 72-60. That victory started the five-game winning streak and now it seems the Terps can't lose.
Maryland plays at Duke Wednesday night and then closes the regular season at home against NC State on Saturday.
"This team just stays tough," Williams said. "We went through a tough time and we wouldn't quit. These seniors saw the last two years."
And now that the Terrapins have experienced winning, at least one Maryland player believes they won't lose.
"I feel like we're on the road to the Final Four," forward James Gist said. "We've got a chance to do big things. We proved tonight we can play against any team in the country. We'll be a threat to anyone as long as we come to play."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.