The Maryland crowd kept looking for a reason to celebrate Sunday. Restless and fidgety, the gold-clad students were like champagne bottles waiting to be uncorked.
There was so much at stake for the Terps — a chance to beat a potent rival, to extend their winning streak to three games and begin to establish a foothold for an NCAA tournament berth.
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But the Maryland fans never got the opportunity to cut loose. Rather than seize their big moment, the Terps were oddly lethargic in falling victim to Virginia’s defense and 3-pointers in an 80-69 loss to the Cavaliers in front of an announced 16,895 at Comcast Center.
Ultimately, Virginia did what few teams have managed this season in handing the Terps their second loss in 16 home games. It quieted a Maryland crowd that prides itself on being obnoxious.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon seemed puzzled at his team being “a half-step slow from the beginning.”
After playing a late game at Virginia Tech on Thursday night, Maryland’s bus to the airport got stuck in a traffic jam on an interstate covered by snow and sleet. The team arrived home at about 4 o’clock in the morning.
Turgeon couldn’t help but wonder if the players had left their games on the interstate.
“I want to give Virginia most of the credit. I want everybody to understand that. But we weren’t there today,” the coach said. “We bounced around with the snow. There was a wreck on the highway. Haven’t had a bye. [Virginia’s players] were home sleeping. You look around the country, teams get tired. Maybe we were tired.”
Virginia’s defense swarmed Maryland’s low-post players like bees in a nest. Maryland’s post players did not often react decisively, allowing themselves to be trapped.
“We haven’t played a team that double-teams us as much as they did,” said Maryland guard Logan Aronhalt (nine points). “Guys are supposed to space the floor. When teams double-team like that, you have to make them pay.”
The Cavaliers, who swept the Terps (17-7, 5-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) last season, entered the day ranked second nationally in average points allowed (51.5).
The Terps, who shot 46.6 percent and were outrebounded for the first time this season, seemed out of sync.
Maryland center Alex Len, who leads the Terps in scoring this season, had just nine points before fouling out in the final minute. Maryland was led by Dez Wells’ 13 points.
On defense, the Terps didn’t scramble out to the 3-point line quickly enough to guard the Cavaliers, who converted 11 of 19 from beyond the arc.
“It was target practice out there today,” said Virginia guard Jontel Evans. “Nobody could miss.”
Virginia (17-6, 7-3 ACC), which has won six of its past seven games, led by six at the half. A floater by Joe Harris in the lane gave Virginia its biggest lead, 51-37, following a Maryland turnover with 13 minutes left. Harris scored 22 points on 7-for-8 shooting.
The Terps chipped away after that. A lay-up and dunk by Shaquille Cleare cut the deficit to 51-41. The lead was 74-67 after Len’s tip-in with 51 seconds left.
But Maryland could get no closer.
“Every time we got on a run, they would hit a good shot,” said Maryland guard Seth Allen (11 points, five assists, five steals).
Maryland players and students wore matching gold on the school’s designated “Gold Rush” game.
The students directed some of their frustration at Virginia forward Justin Anderson, who scored 17 points, including 14 in the first half.
Anderson, a promising freshman from Montrose Christian, had planned to attend Maryland but switched to Virginia after Terps coach Gary Williams retired.
Anderson was booed every time he touched the ball. That was about the most satisfaction that the Maryland students could derive Sunday.
“We didn’t bring all we had to bring today,” said Aronhalt, who knows the team’s NCAA tournament hopes are dwindling.
Maryland doesn’t play again until it hosts Duke on Saturday in a game that looms increasingly large for a Terps team desperate for quality wins.
“There’s no more ‘next game,’” Aronhalt said. “It’s got to be right now.”