Midway through the second half yesterday in Cole Field House, just after Ernie Graham fed Buck Williams for another wicked dunk, a veteran Maryland skeptic considered dinner and wondered to himself: what wine goes well with crow?
Symbolically, the Terrapins could not have chosen a more appropriate game to shoot themselves and their growing bandwagon well past Cloud 9. The team -- and we use team again just to emphasize this unexpected treasure -- Maryland most resembles at the moment is the one it whipped, Duke.
Not the Duke of yesterday, for that team is ailing in important places even though it came to Maryland with a 17-3 record and ranked No. 5 in the nation. tWhat these Terrapins are playing like now is the Duke of two years ago, the collection of unselfish free spirits who surprised much of the athletic world by reaching the NCAA final.
There is no implication here that Maryland is destined for a similar fate, though who in the country is playing with as much flair against fine teams? But these players tug at the heart, inspire the sort of atmosphere here not seen in years, perhaps not since David Thompson used to come to town.
What Maryland team in memory ended a game with 26 assists? The suddenly altruistic Graham had nine of them -- and when was the last time anyone could recall him having three more assists than field goals?
Simply put, Maryland's 101-82 victory was a clinic in thoughtful, rugged, selfless play. And Terrapin fans with a mind will recall the special Duke team of two years ago embarrassing many of the same Terrapins in the same fashion.
The pregame mood crackled with anticipation. Lots of students were found huddling in sleeping bags when school officials unlocked the gym yesterday morning. A few students had hoped to escape notice -- and entry to the game without passes -- by hiding in a shower.
Coach Lefty Driesell even recruited Mr. Enthusiasm for the occasion. Yep, he coaxed Wild Bill Hagy, dugout inspiration for Baltimore and the Orioles this baseball season past, to contort himself into T-E-R-P-S every few minutes.
"Been a Maryland fan a long time," Hagy allowed.
Like others so prominent in Maryland's season of surprise, Hagy was just becoming noticed of late. It was only two months ago that the Terrapins seemed to have such little promise that boosters could not fill a bus to follow them to Hershey, Pa., for the Penn State game.
The contrast defies belief. The year Driesell's best recruit is Superfan he offers his best team in several years. But this also is the year he moved Graham and Albert King to their best positions -- and the year the pass-first instincts of Greg Manning and Williams became contagious.
All manner of plays yesterday beDeviled Duke and illustrated the new Terrapins. Each seemed to build upon the one before, as if the players were saying to themselves: "I can invent a better assist than you can."
Shortly after halftime, King swept downcourt with the ball, slipped it behind his back to get by Allen Williams near the free-throw line and bounced it to Buck Williams for a dunk.
Two possessions later, Graham found himself in the air with the ball, poised to shoot from closer than the distance from which he won the Virginia game Wednesday. A year ago, Graham flicked everything inside Prince George's County toward the basket.
Yesterday, at the top of his leap, relatively free and from high-percentage distance, Graham turned and passed to Greg Manning. From a few feet closer and no defender within two steps, Manning made the shot.
Manning is the unappreciated force behind this Terrapin rejuvenation, appropriately called "The Gray Ghost" by some sign-waving fans from back home. He was shooting 64 percent from the field before going 12-for-15 yesterday.
Manning is exquisitely clever in traffic near the basket. With Maryland ahead, 58-45, Manning drove straight toward Mike Gminski, nearly a foot taller, scooped the ball high over his head and into the basket.
This was mind jolting enough; it also was just the beginning. These were textbook assists for the most part, just as Driesell's first-half slowdown with the lead and King and Graham in foul trouble had been.
The last five minutes Maryland turned itself loose and provided the damndest bit of free-lance passing anyone could imagine.
Graham started it by dribbling past midcourt and directly toward Gminski. Just as a fierce collision seemed about to take place -- the sort from which neither man might arise for hours -- Graham veered right and whipped the ball behind his back to King.
Stuff. The right stuff.
Next we have Graham again leading the rush downcourt. His pass to King whistles to the layup-bound Manning so swiftly the eyes barely catch it.
Later, the eyes lingered on Reggie Jackson, when he blocked a shot by Duke reserve Chip Engelland and sped the other direction for a tough layup. Jackson had been the guard Duke passed to recruit Vince Taylor two years ago. Perhaps Jackson was reminded of that.
Whatever, it has not been a good two years for Jackson as a Terrapin. But after those two splendid moves at each end of the floor he broke into a smile, one that had been a long time coming, a once-fine player possibly finding himself again.