It ended almost exactly as it began for Maryland.
In November at Madison Square Garden, in their first big test of the new season, the Terrapins had a golden opportunity to knock off then-fourth ranked Pittsburgh. But Jordan Williams, who was superb in every other aspect of the game, made only 2 of 7 free throws and the Panthers survived, 79-70.
Friday night at Greensboro Coliseum, the Terrapins were right there again: hanging with fifth-ranked Duke late in the second half with one last chance to pull off a signature win and keep their slim NCAA tournament hopes alive. When Nolan Smith, the ACC player of the year, went tumbling to the floor with 6 minutes 48 seconds left and Duke clinging to a 65-60 lead, the chance to stay alive was very much a real thing.
And again, it didn’t happen. Again, Williams (16 points, 16 rebounds) couldn’t make free throws (2 of 10). On the play when Smith went down, Williams was fouled. With the building buzzing, Williams stepped to the line and missed both free throws.
At that moment, even though no one knew it yet, the game — and the part of Maryland’s season that means anything — ended. With Seth Curry, Duke’s No. 3 point guard when the season began, handling the ball, the Blue Devils played textbook basketball the rest of the way, outscoring the Terrapins 20-8 over the next 5:21 to pull away and win, 87-71.
That margin was deceiving, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Maryland could have beaten a quality team but, when the buzzer sounded, walked away with nothing to show for the evening — and the season — except another handful of “what-ifs.” Which is why they likely will be hosting a National Invitation Tournament game next week, the big-time college basketball equivalent of purgatory.
“We played well for 35 or 36 minutes,” Terrapins forward Dino Gregory said. “But against a quality team like Duke, you have to play well for 40 minutes.”
Those words are direct, simple and 100 percent accurate. Maryland was often a good 35-minute team this season, but that simply isn’t good enough. Friday night, when the game was clearly there to be taken, Duke was simply tougher mentally, running a near-perfect offense and digging in on defense after Maryland had done a good job most of the evening getting to the basket.
“That’s what makes them so hard to beat,” Terrapins Coach Gary Williams said. “When they sense the chance to put you away with a play or two, they almost always take advantage. They know how to run their offense when the game’s on the line and get the ball to the right guys. That means you have very little margin for error on the other end. We made a couple of mistakes tonight late and that pretty much did us in.”
Before the game, Williams had worried about the point guard matchup: Terrell Stoglin, his freshman, against Smith, the Duke senior. “Terrell’s struggled with him,” he said. “But it’s been a month and he’s come a long way since then. We’ll see.”
Stoglin didn’t play especially well but, strangely, Smith was worse. Far worse. He looked completely out of sorts all night: shooting poorly (2 of 11), making awful decisions with the ball (five turnovers) and taking Duke out of its offense by not getting the ball where it needed to go.
While Smith’s injury — to his second toe — could spell doom for Duke this weekend and in the postseason if it is serious, it might have saved the Blue Devils on Friday. Curry, who had been almost as bad as Smith most of the night, became a different player once the ball was in his hands, scoring seven of his 11 points during the Duke run and setting up two other baskets with pretty feeds inside.
“I just kind of went back to last year when I ran the [second-team] offense in practice,” he said, referring to his redshirt season in 2009-10. “I just tried to get us into our offensive sets.”
With Curry not forcing matters the way Smith had, a distracted Duke team suddenly became a very focused one. After Jordan Williams’s missed free throws, Duke went on a 9-1 run with Curry involved in all nine points. That upped the margin to 74-61 and punched Maryland’s NIT ticket.
Maryland came here hoping to top the Miracle of 2004, when it won three games as a lower seed to win the ACC title. It would have needed four wins this weekend, but the case can be made that this game might have been the biggest roadblock if only because Duke has historically been such a tough out for Maryland. Gary Williams has had far more success through the years against North Carolina than against Duke.
“A tournament like this you want to get the first win because then you’re playing on adrenaline,” Williams said before the game. “I wasn’t sure [Thursday] night how we’d come out against N.C. State. Tonight, I feel confident that we’ll come out and play.”
He smiled: “Of course, the opponent tonight might be a little bit tougher.”
The main failing for Williams’s team this season was its inconsistency. The freshman guards — Stoglin and Pe’Shon Howard — showed great potential on some nights and Gregory played well more often than not, but Maryland’s coach didn’t know from night to night what he was going to get from anyone except his sophomore center. Everyone else was throw-the-ball-up-and-hope.
The last hope went a-glimmering shortly after Smith sat down on the Duke bench and took his left sneaker off. Oh sure, the NIT is a chance for the young players to gain some experience, but Maryland doesn’t play basketball to compete in the NIT. Nor does its coach.
“This too shall end,” he said Friday night.
He was talking about the ups and downs of the season. It ended much sooner than he hoped, at least the games with real meaning. But in a sense, it couldn’t end soon enough.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.