It’s a theme becoming all too familiar for Gary Williams and the inexperienced Terps this season.
They’ve competed admirably against the better teams on their schedule, still managing to fall short every time.
But when you consider Maryland had lost its previous two trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium by a combined 62 points — with Greivis Vasquez leading the way, mind you — it’s hard to feel too discouraged after a narrow 71-64 loss to top-ranked Duke Sunday night.
In a game even the most optimistic fans didn’t give the Terps much of a chance to win, they scratched and clawed for 40 minutes, giving the undefeated Blue Devils everything they could handle. Maryland dictated the tempo for much of the game, playing aggressive defense in the paint and challenging passing lanes to the tune of 16 Duke turnovers.
Despite having three freshmen play key minutes, the Terps never looked intimidated like so many opponents do when traveling to Durham and facing the Cameron Crazies.
Sophomore Jordan Williams was again terrific, scoring 23 points and grabbing 13 rebounds for his ninth consecutive double-double against a Duke defense that collapsed the lane on the forward most of the evening.
It was the most physically-demanding game Duke (15-0, 2-0 ACC) had played all season, according to head coach Mike Krzyzewski, as Maryland (10-5, 0-2 ACC) led 56-55 with under seven minutes to play. Duke’s senior leadership was the difference down the stretch, however, as Kyle Singler scored 25 points and Nolan Smith added 18 to extend Duke’s current winning streak to 25 games.
Maryland weathered the storm every time it appeared Duke was poised to go on its traditional surge to put the game out of reach, but the Terps lacked the ability to take advantage of the Blue Devil’s uncharacteristically poor shooting night (6 of 21 from 3-point range).
As good as Williams was, the Terps were again plagued by poor foul shooting (9 of 17) and inconsistent guard play, as freshman Terrell Stoglin went 1-for-10 from the field and senior Adrian Bowie scored only one point. Cliff Tucker chipped in 14 points off the bench, but it was not enough as Maryland dropped its fourth straight game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Terps have to be growing tired of these “moral” defeats as they approach the meat of the conference schedule, traveling to Wake Forest Wednesday night before stepping out of conference at Villanova on Saturday in a final opportunity to secure an impressive non-conference win to add to the NCAA tournament résumé.
Fifteen games into the season, Gary Williams continues to search for the right backcourt combination to complement his sophomore big man. A double-double from Jordan Williams has been the only sure contribution for the Terps, with complimentary scoring feeling like a roll of the dice from the remaining players in the rotation.
Stoglin and fellow freshman Pe’Shon Howard have shown promise but make the mistakes you expect from inexperienced players. Bowie is capable of a strong performance on a given night, but lacks consistency after being used as a role player for his first three seasons in College Park.
Tucker may be the team’s best perimeter threat, but his inconsistent effort on the defensive end and in practice has made him a recurring character in Williams’ doghouse. It now appears the senior is back in the good graces of his coach after playing 29 minutes against Duke, but for how long?
With the college game dictated by strong guard play, the Terps’ struggles do not come as a shock, and after a strong effort against Duke, Gary Williams stressed how much his team has improved since November.
And how the Terps must also continue to get better.
Sunday night’s battle suggested the Terps can still be a top team in what looks to be a relatively-weak ACC this season.
When it’s all said and done, a seven-point loss to the best team in the nation is admirable, but it won’t mean much if the Terps can’t figure out how to finish these close games against quality opponents.
At some point, these “moral” victories must turn into real victories.
Gary Williams knows that and considering how he got his Terps to play against a superior Duke team, I wouldn’t bet against him finally getting through to his team.
Maryland is getting better, but not quite good enough yet.