By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 1:11 AM
GREENSBORO, N.C. - In its third and most critical game against Duke over the last 10 weeks, and with a place in the ACC tournament semifinals at stake, the Maryland men's basketball team battled with an aggression and belief that eluded it toward the end of the regular season.
But the outcome was the same as the first two games, with Maryland stumbling down the stretch Friday night and falling, 87-71. The Terrapins were soundly outplayed over the final six minutes following a toe injury that sent Duke's senior point guard, Nolan Smith, hobbling to the sideline.
Smith, the ACC's player of the year, didn't return, and Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he didn't expect to know about Smith's status for Saturday's semifinal until Saturday morning.
The loss brought Maryland's ACC tournament to an end, along with its razor-thin hopes of a berth in the NCAA tournament, which almost certainly would have required four victories at Greensboro Coliseum in four days.
Instead, the Terrapins got just one and finished 1-10 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI, a mathematical measure of teams' strength used by the NCAA tournament selection committee. Now Maryland (19-14) has little to do but await Sunday's National Invitation Tournament selections. It's a fate Maryland's seniors had hoped to avoid, having been relegated to the NIT as freshmen. It will mark Maryland's fourth trip to the NIT in the last seven seasons.
Duke (28-4), the nation's fifth-ranked team and the ACC tournament's No. 2 seed, has beaten the Terrapins in nine of their last 10 meetings.
Maryland, a team that had three freshmen and a sophomore logging major minutes, showed some signs of progress as the season wore on. But that was little comfort in a somber Terrapins locker room after the game.
"We don't get better unless we win," freshman point guard Pe'Shon Howard said. "There's no moral victory. We wanted to win the tournament."
Smith's struggles started well before he injured the second toe on his left foot with 6 minutes 48 seconds to play and Duke leading, 65-60. Smith made just 2 of 11 shots from the field and turned over the ball five times.
Maryland was paced by sophomore center Jordan Williams, who scored 16 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to earn his 25th double-double of the season. However, he made only 2 of 10 free throw attempts.
Senior Cliff Tucker came off the bench for 12 points and had a big hand in keeping the game within reach, with Maryland pulling within one point five times in the second half.
But after Smith's injury, Duke was transformed. Curry took charge of the offense, Singler hammered the boards and Duke's defense held Maryland without a field goal for nearly six minutes.
"Our guys stepped it up big time when Nolan went down," Krzyzewski said. "It was a sign of good hearts, good spirits."
For Maryland Coach Gary Williams, it was a painful defeat.
"I thought we were in pretty good shape with about 10 minutes left," Williams said afterward, "and to see it go away hurts."
Williams opened with the lineup that got off to such a strong start against North Carolina State in the tournament's first round on Thursday, with freshman Hauk Palsson joining Terrell Stoglin, Adrian Bowie, Dino Gregory and Jordan Williams.
Gregory hit two jumpers early to help Maryland to a 7-4 lead, and the lead rocked back and forth early, with each team, for the most part, working its possessions wisely.
Tucker hit a three-pointer and then a jumper to knot the score at 31 with 4:15 left in the period, but Duke closed the half on an 11-2 run to take a 42-33 lead to the break.
It was a rough, physical game, short on poise but big on effort, with bodies flying and near brawls breaking out over nearly every rebound.
The play got even more manic after Smith's injury, and Duke reeled off nine unanswered points as Maryland's shooting - and its season - went south.