COLLEGE PARK - Bring on the Duke Blue Devils. That's what the University of Maryland's basketball season is all about now.
The No. 20 Terps won their third straight game yesterday, defeating No. 16 Oklahoma, 68-60, at Cole Field House to extend their nation's longest nonconference home-court winning streak to 77 games. But before anyone can say the Terps are back, before anyone can mention the words Sweet 16 or, God forbid, Final Four and Maryland in the same breath, they must beat Duke on Tuesday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Show up and play big in the No. 4 Blue Devils' house.
The Terps (18-9) may have answered some questions about their toughness by beating an ugly, grind-it-out Oklahoma team (21-6) yesterday, but the Terps also have to prove one other thing.
That they have some heart.
No one wants to say it because they are only college kids and no one wants to hurt the Terpies' little feelings, but that's the word out on the street. The Terps have no heart.
Now, they have a chance to prove they do against Duke, a team that ripped the Terps' heart out by rallying from a 10-point deficit with 54 seconds left in regulation on Jan. 27 for a 98-96 overtime win at Maryland. Duke started a slide for Maryland that included four losses in its next five games, and put it on the college basketball couch for a "Who Really Am I?" examination.
It's payback time.`Today was big, I don't care about that," said Terps coach Gary Williams about his team's psyche heading into the Duke game. "We're trying to get better as a basketball team all year."
Sure, GW. Williams always talks about the next opponent after a game.
Getting a little tight already?
He can't forget the loss. No one can forget the loss. The game has already been shown on ESPN Classic. True story. Instead of using the term "choking," people now call it a "Maryland."
Think those crazy Blue Devils fans will have forgotten it Tuesday night? Imagine the signs - "Gone in 54 seconds, The Sequel" - or the batteries that might come out of the stands.
Williams has already tried to brainwash his players into thinking it's just another game.
"They are just an NCAA team like anyone else," said Terps guard Juan Dixon, who finished with 23 points yesterday, all in the second half. "We're going to play our type of game, prepare like we would for any other team in the conference."
OK, then why do Dixon's nostrils flare when he is asked about Duke, and why does his stare become so penetrating?
Williams is using the wrong strategy. Get the Brian Billick tape. Get a spear, go into the game screaming like a banshee, kick down the door and ask where is ... well, you know the rest.
That's been a problem with the Terps most of the season. They're tight and need more tough guys. They have a lot of nails, but few hammers. Maybe that changed yesterday.
The Terps jumped out to a 14-2 lead with 10:53 left in the half, but let the Sooners back in, 27-25, at intermission. The Terps, though, started putting the game away with back-to-back three-pointers by Dixon, which put Maryland ahead 53-42 with 8:27 left. The Sooners never got any closer than eight points in the remaining time.
It was a significant win for Maryland, the third against a ranked team this season, and one that may have put the Terps into the NCAA tournament. But there were still some disturbing signs. Maryland point guard Steve Blake needs to learn to control the tempo of a game without losing control during stretches of the contest.
Terps forward Terence Morris had only six points, which is nothing new, but it would be nice if Maryland ran a few more plays for him down low, especially against Oklahoma, which equaled the Terps with 33 rebounds despite having virtually no low-post game.
The Sooners had more one-on-one specialists who were outclassed by the Terps, who took Oklahoma's best body punches before putting it away near the midway point of the second half.
The new tough guys, these Terps.
They can't play this sloppily at Duke and win, but they won't have to. The Blue Devils bring more of a finesse game. It's a game with interesting matchups. Blake against Jason Williams. Terps center Lonny Baxter against Carlos Boozer. The Terps will probably trade off guarding Duke forward Shane Battier with Morris, Byron Mouton and Danny Miller.
And then there is GW vs. Coach K.
But Maryland has to get past itself. The last time the Terps really had to show some heart, really, really dig down, they got blown out by Virginia, 99-78, in Charlottesville after losing to Duke.
Oh, there's that team again.
Now, Maryland is back in another yardstick game, one that can change public perception.
Bring on the Blue Devils.