GREENSBORO, N.C. -- They are long removed from the days when moral victories mattered, when a down-to-the-overtime-buzzer defeat to North Carolina in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament might be looked upon as a monumental achievement at Maryland.
But if yesterday's 97-92 loss to the second-seeded, fourth-ranked Tar Heels at the Greensboro Coliseum was a huge disappointment for the fourth-seeded, 10th-ranked Terrapins, it was also as uplifting a defeat as anyone could have imagined.
It raised Maryland's confidence, which had taken a major hit in last Sunday's 25-point loss at Virginia to close the regular season and had sustained a few more emotional dents in Friday's shaky seven-point win over Florida State to open the tournament.
It raised Maryland's hopes, as well as its stock, going into the NCAA tournament. Though the Terps would likely have had to win three games this weekend to be higher than a No. 3 seed, they will certainly not drop any lower when the bids are announced tonight.
It wasn't a moral victory.
Call it a morale defeat.
"After the way we played against Virginia and Florida State, I don't think anyone expected us to play with them," interim coach Billy Hahn said afterward. "There were many times that we could have folded our tents and quit and gotten blown out, but we didn't. We came up short. Gary Williams would have been very proud of this team and their effort."
Maryland (24-7) came up short when junior point guard Duane Simpkins came up long on a three-point shot with four seconds to go and the Terps behind, 95-92. Rasheed Wallace, who led North Carolina (24-4) with a career-high 33 points, was fouled and made a pair of free throws with three seconds to go.
"It would have been the utmost possible confidence-boost if we had won," said a downtrodden Simpkins in the quiet Maryland dressing room. "You can't take too many positives out of a loss."
Certainly a victory over the Tar Heels would have carried a lot more significance and carried the Terps into their first ACC tournament final in 11 years. Instead, North Carolina will go after its second straight championship, its 13th under Dean Smith and 14th overall when it meets top seed Wake Forest this afternoon at 3 p.m.
That Maryland played its best game since upsetting the then-top-ranked Tar Heels last month at Cole Field House was important for a team reeling from the loss of its pneumonia-stricken coach. That it came against one of the best teams in the country won't be lost on the NCAA tournament selection committee.
"It was very disappointing," said All-American Joe Smith, who after early foul trouble scored 24 points, pulled down 10 rebounds, blocked four shots and made two steals. "But we have the NCAA tournament to look forward to. We're on to bigger and better things."
Said Hahn, whose team trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half and by seven at halftime: "This was a big confidence-boost for this team. We made only seven turnovers in 45 minutes after making 19 against Florida State. We had a lot of guys step up big, especially some guys like Exree Hipp who were struggling."
Hipp, who had disappeared of late, finished with 23 points and six rebounds. Johnny Rhodes scored 17, including 14 in the second half, to go along with eight rebounds and two steals. The Maryland reserves outscored North Carolina's bench, 16-4, with junior forward Mario Lucas contributing nine points and four rebounds in 19 minutes.
"We wanted to win the regular season, but we came up short against Virginia, and we wanted to win the ACC tournament, but we came up short today," said Hipp. "Now we want to win six in a row and win it all."
Maryland certainly had its chances to play for the ACC championship. But after storming back from a 74-65 deficit to take an 80-78 lead on a three-point shot by Rhodes with 2:32 to play, the Terps couldn't quite put the Tar Heels away.
Leading 83-81 after a three-point shot by reserve guard Wayne Bristol with two minutes to play, Maryland had a chance to extend it when Smith was fouled rebounding a missed three by Carolina guard Donald Williams. Smith hit one of two free throws. With the Terps Still up three after two free throws by Simpkins with 1:17 to go, sophomore All-American Jerry Stackhouse hit his only three to tie the game at 86 with 59 seconds left.
It remained tied when Smith was blocked by Wallace and senior forward Dante Calabria made one of three heads-up plays on loose balls, banging it off Simpkins out of bounds. The Tar Heels had a shot to win in regulation, but Simpkins stayed right with Jeff McInnis, who missed a 15-footer with three seconds left. The rebound was batted around as time expired.
"They hit some tough threes to get back into the game and take the lead, but nobody on our team panicked," said Stackhouse, who finished with 19 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. "We knew what we had to do and we stepped up and made the plays when we needed to."