No time like now for UM to beat Duke

March 10, 2001|By John Eisenberg

ATLANTA - The Maryland Terrapins have played 85 minutes against Duke this season and outplayed the Blue Devils for, oh, about 78. But all they have to show for it is a split of their two games. A draw.

No, there's no shame in that; a lot of teams around the country would celebrate a regular-season split with the Blue Devils, especially with the win coming at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke seldom loses. Maryland has done that in each of the past two seasons and will never turn it down.

But, as harsh as it sounds, a split with the Blue Devils isn't going to get Maryland where it wants to go. The Terps are going to have to do better at some point if they're ever going to bust out of the ultimately frustrating cycle of ending up just outside college basketball's elite.

They won't have many better chances than today.

After blowing out Wake Forest in the second half of their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinal last night, the Terps now get Duke in the semifinals. Yes, Duke again, one more time. A chance for Gary Williams' Terps to turn a 1-1 season split into a 2-1 advantage.

What a concept.

The circumstances can't get any more positive going in. The game is at the Georgia Dome, a far cry from Tobacco Road and Duke's home crowd. The Blue Devils are missing starting center Carlos Boozer, out with a foot injury. The Terps are extremely hot, winners of six in a row, with five of the wins over ranked opponents. And their confidence can't get any higher after winning at Duke just 11 days ago.

The time is right.

"Maryland is really capable of beating anyone, and they showed that tonight," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said after the Terps' 71-53 win last night.

But engineering such a breakthrough against Duke is always - always - a lot harder than it ever appears. As a matter of fact, how many times have you seen it happen?

Please note that the Blue Devils haven't lost since Maryland upset them, putting on an electrifying show in pounding North Carolina in Chapel Hill last weekend, then yawning past North Carolina State last night. It appears they're getting accustomed to playing without Boozer, moving to a smaller lineup, with guard Chris Duhon stepping into a major role.

"They're a terrific team either way," North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek said last night. "I don't think they've missed a beat."

No doubt about it. They're still the chalk, still the team to beat, still talented and cool and pedigreed and formidable, with the national Player of the Year, Shane Battier, and super-fast guard Jason Williams.

About as easy to beat as those guys doing all the fighting in "Gladiator."

What a brutal yet wonderful test for the Terps.

They can win and have the college basketball world say, "Wow, the Terps really are for real this time. Two in a row over Duke."

Or, they can lose and have everyone say, "Well, Duke is still Duke and Maryland is still Maryland."

The Terps warmed up for the occasion with another strong showing last night, limiting a team ranked No. 22 in the nation to its season-low point total. Defense continues to be the backbone of the Terps' late-season run. Wake shot 31.7 percent and totaled almost as many turnovers (16) as baskets (19).

Wake kept things competitive for a time with some strong defense of its own, alternating an aggressive man-to-man with a variety of zones in the first half. That slowed the pace down and kept the score close. Maryland still led by five points at halftime, but with Juan Dixon out of sorts, missing seven of 10 shots, the Terps bore little resemblance to the team that blew out Virginia last weekend.

Then came the second half. After Wake started with a basket to cut the lead to three, the Terps woke up, scored 10 straight points and embarked on an 18-2 run. Anyone suggesting that they might be looking ahead to Duke had to pipe down. Steve Blake hit a pair of three-pointers, Lonny Baxter found scoring room inside and suddenly the Terps were rolling. When Wake's shot selection cratered, the margin grew lopsided.

Time for a real game, an occasion befitting the roll that has dropped the Terps into the Final Four mix.

Time for Duke.

"We've played two really great games with them, one that was a classic and one that wasn't," Maryland coach Gary Williams said dryly, still rankled that ESPN labeled Duke's win at Cole Field House an "instant classic," yet made no such fuss over Maryland's win at Cameron. "Hopefully, this will be another great game."

No, the stage isn't totally pressure-packed. As desperately as the Terps want to win the ACC tournament for the first time under Williams, their season, as always, will come down to how they fare in the NCAA tournament starting next week. They will go in with a fairly high seeding, no worse than a No. 4 and possibly a No. 3, even if they lose today. So, there's nothing to lose today, right?

No, just a postseason game to the elite team Maryland has chased for years, fairly sweating with envy.

Just a chance to win the season series from Duke.

Nothing to lose? Nothing to play for? Are you kidding?

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