Heads were down and voices were soft in the Maryland locker room today. This was to have been the afternnon when the Terps showed the country they were the logical choice to succeed Louisville as national basketball champions.
Instead, the Cardiinals blew fourth-ranked Maryland away, 78-67, showing 15,072 in Freedom Hall and a national television audience that they are still a gifted group of athletes, capable of dominating anyone, despite their 0-3 start.
"We just couldn't buy a basket," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said after his team's first loss in six games. "You aren't going to see many nights where we shoot 32 percent (actualy 37 percent) as a team. The second half, we just shot too quick and then they really got after us. I hope we learned a lesson from this."
If a lesson was learned, it was a painful one. Leading, 40-39, at the half, the Cardinals exploded after intermission, outscoring the Terps, 16-4, in the first seven minutes and never letting them within 11 the rest of the way, leading by as many as 19 with 2:26 to play.
"We didn't really play that great a game offensively," said Louisville Coach Denny Crum. "But we were great on defense and we rebounded great. That got our break going. We haven't had any kind of break this year because we haven't played good defense."
The only Terrapin who played like himself was center Buck Williams. The 6-foot-8 junior kept Maryland close the first half with 18 points and 12 rebounds. He tired in the second half but still matched his career highs of 27 points and 22 rebounds.
The story of this game, though, was not Williams and it was not the balanced Louisville scoring. All five starters hit double figures -- Rodney McCray 17, Wiley Brown 14, Jerry Eaves 13, Scooter McCray 12 and Derek Smith 10.
The story of this game was Greg Manning and Albert King. Manning came into the game with 15 straight field goals and 65 percent shooting accuracy this season. He promptly missed two easy jumpers at the outset and went on to a miserable five of 15, 11-point day.
That was stunning. But it was the shooting of King -- 11 points on five of 20 from the floor, including one of nine in the first half -- that left Driesell mumbling and the 6-6 senior sitting in a corner of the locker room totally disgusted with himself.
"If I'd have played, we might have had a chance. This team depends on me to score some points, not gun or anything, but score. I haven't shot well, played well, all year. I don't know what's wrong with me."
In spite of King's first-half performance, the Terps were down by only one at intermission, largely because of Williams and because the superfast Cardinals turn the ball over almost as quickly as they steal it, reject it or rebound it.
"I though then we were in pretty good shape," said Driesell, whose respect for Louisville's inside strength was manifested by his opening the game in a zone. "I thought if we could get ahead just a little, we'd be okay. But they jumped on us right away and we never got going."
The Terps led once in the second half, 41-40, on a short King jumper, then the Cardinals took over. Using their press to force Maryland into an up-tempo, shoot-'em-up pace, they began to exploit their great leaping ability and intimidated Maryland into shooting too quickly and adjusting shots. Before the game was over Ernest Graham (10 points), King, Manning, even Williams, had missed lay-ups because they were hearing footsteps.
"When they press, you need to take good shots, not get in a rat race," Driesell said. "We got drawn into a rat race."
The key sequence may have come four minutes into the half. It was still only 48-43 when Williams went in for a short one-hander. But Derek Smith, superb on King all day, appeared to come straight down from the dark rafters to slam the shot halfway to Lexington.
Eaves picked up the ball in full gear, went the length of the court -- and missed. But Rodney McCray was a half-step behind for the followup. King then missed a jumper on which he appeared to be fouled and Brown, a notoriously poor outside shooter, swished a 17-footer. It was 52-43 and the Terps were rattled. Reggie Jackson lost the ball cleanly to Roger Burkman, who fed Smith for another layup and, after King missed a five-footer, Rodney McCray nailed a bank shot. It was 56-43, Louisville, with 13 minutes left and Driesell called time out.
"It's tough for us when Albert isn't having a good night," Williams said. "The second half I got kind of fatigued because they have so many big, strong guys inside."
After awhile, Williams simply couldn't handle the onslaught by himself when Graham was producing only two rebounds, King six and point guards Dutch Morley and Jackson combining for two points (a Morley jumper with two minutes left) and six turnovers.
The Terps had one last chance to rally when Manning stole the ball and fed King with the score 62-51 and seven minutes left. But King traveled and it was 68-51 before the Terps scored again with 4:45 to go.
"They're big, they're quick and they jump ," Manning said, shaking his head in wonder. "We won't see a team that jumps and rebounds like them again this season."
"Today, we were better," Crum, always philosophical, said. "Tomorrow we could play them again and they'd be better.
"But," he added with a grin, "we're not playing tomorrow. We're taking the day off."
So are the Terps. They need the rest.