NCAA basketball: Maryland falters with its season on the line

Maryland guard Sean Mosley, left, and forward Dino Gregory lament what might have been. The Terrapins trailed by five with less than seven minutes remaining before losing, 87-71.
Maryland guard Sean Mosley, left, and forward Dino Gregory lament what might have been. The Terrapins trailed by five with less than seven minutes remaining before losing, 87-71. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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Saturday, March 12, 2011; 1:09 AM

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- 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.

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