MORGANTOWN, W.VA., DEC. 1 -- Three games into the 1990-91 basketball season, there is no question as to how hard Maryland has played. However, the Terrapins discovered today that a yeoman's effort won't always be enough, falling to West Virginia, 90-85.

Maryland (2-1) nearly pulled off one of the most improbable victories in school history. Trailing 73-61 with 9:35 remaining, 79-71 with 5:32 to play and 86-76 with 2:16 left, the Terrapins still had a chance to send the game into overtime in the final 30 seconds.

Two free throws by Tracy Shelton gave the Mountaineers an 88-85 advantage. Eschewing the possible game-tying three-point shot after inbounding the ball, Maryland guard Kevin McLinton drove hard to the basket, but missed a layup.

The Terrapins got at least four other field goal attempts, but in the frenzied atmosphere never tried to work the ball out to the perimeter for a three-point shot. Eventually, the ball trickled out to West Virginia guard Mike Boyd, who went the length of the floor for a dunk that ended it.

"The play was supposed to go either way; if Kevin could have hit Matt Roe or Matthew Downing for the three {-point shot} he was supposed to, but if he couldn't he was supposed to take it to the basket," said Maryland Coach Gary Williams. "He did a good job; there was a lot of contact in there on those last shots but I guess not enough."

The loss spoiled outstanding games by Roe and McLinton. Roe led the game with 27 points (18 in the second half). McLinton, who was credited with just two field goals, nevertheless came up with 14 points by hitting 10 of 14 free throws, many following one of the sophomore's 10 rebounds.

West Virginia (2-0) was led by Boyd's 23 points.

"These losses are the worst," said Roe. "As unprepared as we were, as many lapses as we had during the game, we still had a chance to win. If we came in here and they were superior and we got blown out, that would be one thing. But we had a chance to win. The start of the first and second halves killed us and we have no one to blame but ourselves."

Maryland opened by missing 10 of its first 11 shots and falling behind 20-11. Although the Terps rallied to within 43-42 at halftime, after intermission the Mountaineers again took control, extending their advantage to 67-55 with 11:58 to play.

Part of Maryland's problem was foul trouble. Starting power forward Garfield Smith had three personal fouls by halftime and picked up his fourth less than a minute into the second half. After averaging 15 points and 8.5 rebounds in the first two games, the junior had six and three respectively in 12 minutes today.

Walt Williams also struggled. The junior point guard, again hobbled by the foul trouble that plagued him last season, had four fouls by the 12:09 mark and fouled out with 2:16 remaining. He contributed just seven points on three-of-13 shooting.

"Walt Williams is a great player; a hardship pick in the NBA next year I understand," said West Virginia Coach Gale Catlett. "Well, if he can get $3 million then Boyd can get $10 million; Walt Williams may be a great player but he was three for 13 today and a lot of that was because of Boyd."

After an occasionally brilliant sophomore year playing alongside Tony Massenburg and Jerrod Mustaf, both now in the NBA, Williams has become the focal point of Maryland's attack. With that has come increased attention from opposing defenses.

"It's certainly different from last year but I'm comfortable with it," Williams said. "I just have to concentrate on staying in the game -- it's hard to be effective coming in and out of it. I didn't have a halfway decent game today, I just have to come out Monday {in the ACC-Big East Challenge in Richmond against Boston College} and redeem myself."

If not seeking redemption, Maryland is currently being challenged to develop cohesiveness and consistency. The Terps shot 35 percent and had 18 turnovers today, giving them 56 this season.

"We're going to get better, remember we're starting four new people," said Gary Williams. "I don't think many people expected us to be at the point where we could come in here and be in position to win the game in the last minute."