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Dec 14, 2008

Terps prove to be a cut above the Tar Heels

FRISCO, Texas -- Maryland put a championship stamp on another NCAA season Sunday. The margin on the scoreboard might appear slim, but the edge over North Carolina was reasonably evident in terms of talent and ability to rise to the moment. There can be no doubt that Maryland is a deserving champion after the Terrapins staked a solid claim to their second College Cup title in four years by beating UNC 1-0 on Sunday.

Graham Zusi's second mammoth goal of the weekend provided the edge on the score sheet, but the talented Terrapins enjoyed advantages all over the field.

Coach Sasho Cirovski's side was better in almost every area -- never by a wide margin, but a cut above nonetheless. UNC made headlines with a huge upset over top-seeded Wake Forest to earn a spot in Sunday's final, but didn't quite have the energy or ideas to seriously press for a second stunner.

"I felt like we had a tough time getting into the rhythm, especially in the first half," UNC coach Elmar Bolowich said. "In the second half, with the wind at our back, I thought we would do a little bit more. But Maryland's defense held very strong."

UNC can't feel too badly about falling in the nationally televised final of the 50th annual College Cup. This is a Maryland program that set season records for wins (23) and shutouts (15) en route to earning the No. 2 seed in the tournament.

So it's no huge surprise UNC couldn't even turn up a shot on goal through 70 minutes. Maryland's A.J. Delagarza was particularly effective in quieting the UNC attack. Not that fellow center back Omar Gonzalez -- who had a massive cheering section on hand at Pizza Hut Park, as the big defender is from just down the road in Dallas -- did anything wrong. It's just that Delagarza was quicker to step into the big challenges.

The Tar Heels rarely bothered Maryland goalkeeper Zac MacMath until after Zusi's 67th-minute goal -- a left-footed strike that was just as well taken as his extra-time free kick that took down St. John's in Friday's semifinal. In fact, Sunday's match was marked by a few opportunities, but very few clear chances for either side.

"It was a championship game," Cirovski said. "Both teams were exhausted from Friday's game. It was never going to be a game of beauty. We originally got frustrated with ourselves that we couldn't play more. But after the first [TV] timeout, we just accepted the fact that it was not going to be a beautiful game. We just needed to battle and find a way to win."

Which is exactly what the Terrapins, who finish the season with a 15-game winning streak, did to defeat North Carolina on two other occasions this year. They won in College Park, Md., by a 2-1 margin on Nov. 7, and then prevailed in a 1-0 first-round contest in the ACC Tournament on Nov. 12.

While neither side put together long stretches of possession Sunday -- a regular occurrence in the college game, where high energy and tackling frequently prevail -- Maryland did have more possessions in dangerous spots.

Maryland was a little cleaner with the ball coming out of the back. That wasn't just Gonzalez and Delagarza. Right back Rich Costanzo, just like on Friday, had just the right balance of bite and composed ball handling. The UNC center backs, meanwhile, didn't have their best afternoon, looking a bit nervous in spots.

The Terrapin forwards were better at squeezing the game, tracking from behind to push the UNC ball handlers into oncoming traffic. Those same forwards, Casey Townsend and Jason Herrick, were just a little better in combining with each other, as well.

Maryland's midfielders were just a shade quicker to react to second balls, and they were more adept at stepping into the passing lanes to shut down UNC attacks. Again, they were little advantages, but so many of them added up to a side that was clearly better.

And there was one more little edge the Terrapins enjoyed: They were just a smidge better at gaming the game. They knew a little more about finding the right balance between being physical and fouling. They worked official Alex Prus just a little more effectively.

On the other side, UNC defenders gave Maryland too many set-piece chances inside the Tar Heels half -- not a great idea, considering how well Zusi and Matt Kassel can deliver free kicks and corner kicks.

Maryland even seemed to have a little edge in energy. Both teams had just a day to recuperate from taxing 1-0 matches Friday. Recovering emotional and physical energy is no small chore, especially considering conditions Sunday that were adequate for December, but something less than ideal. Temperatures in the low 70s, sunshine and gusty wind made for a tough slog.

Still, Maryland stood up to it all with just a little more force. Some of that was down to hard work and heart; Townsend set a high standard, always chasing, harassing and offering that important initial pressure from his forward position.

"Our preparation leading up to the game was exquisite," said Cirovski, a noted taskmaster who likes to have a say in every detail associated with the program, from training to travel itinerary. He wasn't happy with a team hotel that lacked a hot tub, for instance. Instead, the Terrapins improvised with the unheated, outdoor pool, going for a regenerative cold water plunge around 11 p.m. Friday.

"We spent a good day Saturday getting prepared, physically and psychologically, in any way we could," Cirovski said. He said they were "pretty vanilla this weekend," in terms of non-soccer related activities and such.

Even after the goal, UNC couldn't muster much of a late challenge. Midfielder Michael Callahan, one of the chief architects of Friday's upset, did dribble through the Terrapins' defense in the 70th. MacMath rescued the moment with a big foot save.

Bolowich dispatched defender Sheanon Williams into a forward position, but with little effect. Sending long balls into the penalty area wasn't really an option, as the 6-foot-4 Gonzalez was sure to reign over those.

MacMath was sure-handed and in charge on the balls that did leak through.

"Our goal at the beginning of the year was to be the last team standing," Cirovski said. "There was a time in the middle of this year, we weren't sure we had the fiber of a champion. So we challenged our guys, right after the Clemson game (a 5-3 loss on Oct. 3). We had a lot of talented guys on this squad that had never won a championship. We reminded them what it would take to be a champion. They not only bought into it, they exceeded the expectations we asked of them."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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