If there is such a place as basketball heaven, Maryland arrived there yesterday.
The Terrapins were truly celestial from almost start to finish, demolishing fifth-ranked Duke, 101-82, in front of a delirious crowd of 14,500 in Cole Field House. In the process, they took another giant step towards the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title and an NCAA tournament bid.
"I've been in coaching 25 years and I've never had a team play any better than that," Maryland's Lefty Driesell said. "I haven't seen De Paul play, but I don't know of anybody in the country who could beat us when we play like that."
If there is a team that can beat the Terps when they are cranking on all cylinders, like yesterday, it is not Duke. Certainly not Duke without starting forward Kenny Dennard, and probably not with him.
"Give them all the credit," Duke Coach Bill Foster said. "They just played super basketball."
Maryland broke the game open in the final minutes of the first half and the early moments of the second.
With Ernest Graham and Albert King on the bench with three fouls each, the Terps turned a 30-28 lead into a 36-28 margin by halftime. They stretched their advantage to 12 in the first minute of the second half and got it to 18 midway in the half, at 64-66, on Graham's layup.
Duke, utilizing a full-court press, made a brief run, scoring nine straight points to cut the lead to 64-55, but the Terps called time, regrouped and blew the Blue Devils out of the building during the final eight minutes.
The victory leaves 12th-ranked Maryland in full command in the ACC race with an 8-1 record (16-3 overall). Duke is 5-4 in the conference, 17-4 in all. Second-place North Carolina, at 6-3 the only team with a realistic shot at catching the Terps, comes here Thursday.
If Maryland plays as it did yesterday, the Tar Heels might as well stay in Chapel Hill. The Terrapins shot 70 percent the second half, 63 percent for the game. They outrebounded for Blue Devils, 36-27, and made 19 of 20 free throws.
The individual statistics tell even more. Greg Manning, continuing to scintillate, sank 12 of 15 shots for a career-high 26 points. Buck Williams made eight if 10 for 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. King made eight of 14 for 16 points. Reggie Jackson made four of six for 11 points. Graham had 12 points and nine, count 'em, nine, assists.
"It was just one of those days," Williams said. "Everything we did went right. We couldn't do anything wrong. One time (eugene) Banks had a break and he just kicked the ball off his foot. That's the kind of day they were having."
"Actually, Banks was the only Blue Devil who did not play poorly. He had nine of 13 shots for 21 points before fouling out with four minutes left. The rest of Foster's team never got a wake-up call.
All-America center Mike Gminski, bothered by a pulled back muscle, played a season-low 31 minutes, shot just six of 16 for 17 points but did manage 12 rebounds. Jim Suddath, starting in place of Dennard (out the last eight games with a deep thigh bruise) had five points in 26 minutes and a total of three rebounds.
But the story of this game was the home team, a team fired up by a crowd that was screaming and yelling more than an hour before game time; a team that still felt it had something to prove.
"Even though we've beaten some good teams a lot of people still thought Maryland was a fluke or something," King said. "We were playing the No. 5 team in the country. I don't care if they've got all five starters out, they're still ranked that high. We wanted to prove to people that we're for real."
Or, as Williams put it, "Before the season in Greensboro I said we could be a contender for the title. People laughed in my face. Maybe now they'll take us seriously."
Duke took the Terps seriously but it didn't matter. The Blue Devils led in the early going, the last time at 22-20. Graham's 10-footer with six minutes left in the half put the Terps up, 24-22, and the Blue Devils never got even again.
The Terps steadily built the lead, consistently breaking the Duke press for layups or short jump shots -- many of them by Manning -- and only looked shaky once, during Duke's 9-0 run.
That brief flurry was stopped when Manning, now shooting better than 65 percent for the season,, knocked in a 10-foot jump shot to get the Terps rolling again.
"When we got it to nine we had a shot at them," said Duke guard Bob Bender."But then Manning made that shot and we lost something. Greg used to be just a shooter, now he's as good a guard as there is in the conference, maybe in the country."
Certainly there is no more consistent shooter than Manning, a baby-faced junior. Wednesday, after a relatively mediocre three of six first half against Virginia, he was told by an assistant coach, Sherman Dillard, that he was adjusting the ball in his hand before shooting. Manning steadied himself, then made four of five the second half and kept on going yesterday.
"I'm just getting good shots," Manning said. "When you're open and people get the ball you should make those shots most of the time. You don't do it alone."
Perhaps not. But Manning does a lot by himself. Typical, perhaps, was a drive he made on Gminski, arching an underhanded shot over the 6-foot-11 senior's reach for a 60-45 Maryland lead nine minutes into the second half.
Thus, with the Terps clearly in the ACC driver's seat and this week virtually assured of their first top 10 ranking since 1976, the question becomes, just how good is this team?
"I don't think there are many teams better than us," Driesell said, showing the restraint of a man who knows that one game does not a season make.
But Duke's Bender had no reason for restraints.
"If there's a team playing better than them anywhere in the country," he said, "I'd like to see them."