COLLEGE PARK, Md. — As media waited for Gary Williams’ post-game press conference, the lights went out in the auxiliary gymnasium where the Maryland coach speaks to reporters after games.
It was an appropriate ending to a disappointing night for the Terps in an 80-62 loss to No. 5 Duke, a game in which Maryland tried to climb back in it at several points behind an electric atmosphere at Comcast Center.
Poor shooting, the surrendering of second-chance baskets, and lackadaisical perimeter defense spelled out what anyone who watched Wednesday night’s game could plainly see.
“It’s a team thing,” said Williams, questioning his team’s energy level much like he did after a home loss to Virginia Tech two weeks ago. “You have to be ready to play. You have to believe that you can win that game. That’s what we have to work on.”
To beat Duke, Maryland (14-8, 4-4 ACC) needed to play a near-perfect game to compensate for their deficiencies on the perimeter, using its size and playing tough defense (ranked ninth in the nation in opponent field-goal percentage entering Wednesday night’s game) to knock off the more-talented Blue Devils.
The Terps did neither as Duke (20-2, 7-1 ACC) scored 18 second-chance points and went 10-for-23 from 3-point range. Maryland was outrebounded 34 to 31 and allowed Duke to shoot 52.6 percent from the field.
Even when given opportunities to take control in the first half as three Duke starters battled foul trouble, Maryland fell behind by 15 points before a late run cut the deficit to seven at the half.
Offensively, Jordan Williams again led the way with 20 points and 10 rebounds despite being swarmed in the paint, as the Duke defense had no reason to respect any other options offensively for the Terps. Maryland shot just 40 percent from the field and went 2-for-9 from beyond the arc.
The Terps cut the Duke lead to five with 9:20 remaining, but the Blue Devils responded with a 10-3 run to push the deficit to 66-54 with 5:42 to play. Maryland would not challenge again.
“It’s hard coming back,” Williams said. “You have to really dig down deep against a good team, and then when you do, to get over the top that’s when it gets tough. I don’t know what happened to tell you the truth. I’d have to look at that and see exactly what happened.”
The Terps coach refrained from expressing what’s become painfully obvious about this team 22 games into the season.
Against the stiffest competition, Maryland doesn’t have enough to complement the fantastic play of Williams.
Not nearly enough.
Yes, Cliff Tucker has had his moments — he scored only seven points in Wednesday’s loss — in an up-and-down career as a role player. Adrian Bowie has played well since sliding to the off-guard position, chipping in 11 points against the Blue Devils, but lacks the size and perimeter game to be a consistent threat night in and night out.
And freshmen point guards Terrell Stoglin and Pe’Shon Howard have shown enough promise that they can be effective backcourt players in the ACC — one day.
But when the chips are down against the better teams, Williams is the only man the Terps can count on, a difficult proposition with a player who doesn’t handle the ball in the guard-dependent world of college basketball.
In contrast, Duke’s senior leadership — and overall ability — prevented the Terps from really challenging despite cutting the lead to five in the second half. Forward Kyle Singler had 22 points — 13 in the second half — while guard Nolan Smith scored 13 points after halftime to finish with 21. Even underclassmen Andre Dawkins (three 3-pointers) and Seth Curry (two triples) hit shots at opportune times for the Blue Devils, who avenged an embarrassing 15-point loss at St. John’s on Sunday in an emphatic way.
Maryland simply lacks the guard play necessary to beat good teams, at least with any kind of consistency. While it’s easy to say the Terps should give the ball to Williams every time down the floor, you need the players to get him the ball in the optimum position to score. And it certainly doesn’t help that defenses can collapse the lane at will, with no real trepidation of being burned by the perimeter shot.
“I felt like they couldn’t stop me without fouling me,” the Maryland sophomore said. “That’s why I tried to get the ball inside more. They did a good job of getting guys on me. We need to hit shots. I missed a couple of shots towards the end that I normally make. It’s an all-around team effort.”
An all-around team effort that has now produced the Terps’ two biggest margins of defeat (a 17-point defeat to Virginia Tech on January 20 being the second worst) in the nine-year history of Comcast Center.
To be fair, no one expected the Terps to be as good as they were last season after the departure of Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes, and Landon Milbourne, but two blowout ACC losses — at home — are tough pills to swallow.
Despite the disappointment of Wednesday’s loss to Duke, the Terps still have plenty to play for in terms of their postseason hopes. Whether they’re good enough is the real question as they continue deeper into February.
“We have to win games, that’s the bottom line,” Jordan Williams said. “We don’t have a quality win under our belt. We beat some tough teams, but we don’t have a win against a ranked opponent. … We just have to keep moving forward and trying to improve.”
The Terps should find few problems in their next two games as they host Wake Forest Saturday and Longwood next Wednesday night in what amounts to a pseudo bye week before back-to-back road games at Boston College and Virginia Tech in mid-February, critical contests indetermining their postseason fate. Gary Williams will undoubtedly use the next week to challenge his players’ intestinal fortitude and prepare them for the second half of the conference schedule.
Finding alternative options to Jordan Williams as well as the consistent, 40-minute effort will be the continued quest in determining the Terps’ destiny over the regular season’s final month.
“There comes a point in the season where you either do it or you don’t do it,” Gary Williams said. “There’s no magic answers to those situations. You have to get it done.”