CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (Ticker) - After Rashad McCants and North Carolina treated Maryland's defense like a layup line in the first half, they had to sweat out another near-collapse.
McCants scored 25 points as the 17th-ranked Tar Heels held off a furious charge by the Terrapins for a 97-86 Atlantic Coast Conference victory.
North Carolina (15-7, 5-6 ACC) looked unstoppable in the first half, placing four players in double figures and shooting 58 percent (18-of-31). McCants had 12 points by the break and scored three seconds into the second half for a 57-35 cushion.
Maryland (13-8, 4-6) never quit and used a strong second half by Chris McCray and pulled within 82-79 on John Gilchrist's 3-pointer with 4:53 to go. McCants came off a downscreen and nailed a 3-pointer to restore a six-point edge.
The Terrapins cut the deficit to 87-83 on freshman Ekene Ibekwe's follow shot with just over three minutes left. The Tar Heels got a pair of free throws from Jawad Williams before McCants struck again.
With the shot clock expiring and North Carolina's offense going nowhere, McCants picked up a loose ball after Maryland knocked away a pass and fired up a shot from the arc that banked in for a 92-83 cushion with 2:03 remaining.
The Tar Heels blew a 24-point lead in a loss at Florida State on January 22 and also let a double-digit advantage slip away in a victory over Connecticut. North Carolina watched its defense falter in those outings and looked tired in the second half in Sunday's win.
The victory moved North Carolina out of seventh place and into a fifth-place tie with Florida State in the rugged ACC. Maryland fell into seventh, one-half game back.
Jawad Williams scored 23 points and Sean May added 14 and 12 rebounds for North Carolina, which enjoyed a huge advantage at the free-throw line. The Tar Heels made 36-of-50 while the Terrapins were 20-of-30.
North Carolina entered after a brutal three-game ACC stretch against Duke, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels came out fired up as they torched the Terrapins with McCants and Jackie Manuel racing downcourt for easy baskets.
Maryland did a better job in the second half of harrassing North Carolina point guard Raymond Felton, who had five turnovers over the final 20 minutes. The Tar Heels' 22 turnovers kept the Terrapins in the game.
McCray scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half to lead Maryland's push. Gilchrist added 12 points and eight assists and came up with five steals to spearhead the defensive effort.
But there was no answer for another magnificent effort from McCants, who made 9-of-15 shots to continue his scoring spree. McCants is shooting 56 percent (76-of-139) over his last nine games.