WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Very little comes easy to a team like Maryland that is universally picked to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference and even whispered to go without a single league win.
Last night's conference opener with Wake Forest would hardly have been easy, but it was there for the taking, like a tall glass of cold water in the middle of the desert.
But the Terrapins (6-4) fumbled and kicked the glass all over the sand, dropping a thoroughly winnable game to the Demon Deacons, 74-62.
And the reason for Maryland's downfall wasn't hidden behind a sand dune, but was in very plain sight.
The Terps' offense was bone dry, as only one regular, center Cedric Lewis (4-for-7) shot above 50 percent.
After shooting a respectable 48 and 49 percent in winning the ECAC Holiday Festival last weekend in New York, Maryland shot a paltry 33 percent from the floor for the game and an abysmal 27 percent in the second half on the way to their lowest point total of the season.
Junior Walt Williams had 16 points to lead Maryland, but was only 7-for-20 from the floor. His backcourt mate, senior Matt Roe, suffered through his worst game as a Terp, scoring three points on a 1-for-12 shooting night.
"We had a shot in the second half, but we couldn't sustain our halfcourt offense," said coach Gary Williams. "We have to continue to improve as a team. Wake played very good defense, but we just had some shots that wouldn't go."
Maryland had two separate five-minute stretches and a third drought of six minutes where they did not score in the traditional halfcourt set.
And as they hit only 18 of their 27 foul shots, the arid periods made the going that much tougher.
"We made them work hard on defense and we got some breaks, but we didn't put the ball in the basket," said sophomore guard Kevin McLinton, who had seven points and three steals.
"And when you don't do that, you don't win."
And yet Maryland very nearly did win, despite the foul trouble that plagued Lewis and junior forward Garfield Smith and gave Wake (6-2) carte blanche inside.
The Deacons ran up leads of seven points or more four times in the first half, only to find Maryland battling back to close the gap.
"I don't think there were two teams in the country that wanted to win any more tonight than Wake Forest and Maryland," said Wake coach Dave Odom.
"Perhaps both teams wanted to win so badly to a fault. You work so hard to get your heads above water, to earn respect, and you really can't do that until you get right in there in conference play. These two teams were struggling for that tonight."
But when Smith picked up his third foul late in the first half when he and Chris King collided going for the ball, and when Lewis was whistled for his fourth, going for a loose ball just 44 seconds into the second half, Maryland struggled just a bit more.
"I saw the ball coming to me and it looked like I could get it," said Lewis. "I watched the ball instead of the man."
Still, the Terps were in position to get into the game late as they forced the Deacons into six straight turnovers in the last six minutes, but could get only four points out of it.
"We got several steals down the stretch, but we just couldn't convert and that hurt us," said Gary Williams. "I thought that was the key to the game."
And so Maryland's trek across the ACC desert begins with no immediate indication whether respectability is real or a mirage.
"We can play," said Gary Williams. "We were picked not to win any games in the conference, and we haven't yet, but we have to believe in ourselves."