CHARLOTTE, N.C. — CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When the Maryland basketball team came here two days ago for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the Terrapins were cautiously optimistic about their chances for a bid to next week's NCAA tournament.
They are even more cautious now. Although a 69-63 loss to Virginia in the team's opening quarterfinal game may not have ended Maryland's chances for a bid, it raised some doubts and might have put the Terps back on the bubble. The bids are issued tomorrow.
Maryland (16-11) doesn't have anyone else to blame for its position. The Terps shot poorly from the field (22 of 67), allowed the cold-shooting Cavaliers to get back their touch with several easy second-half baskets (18 of 30 in the half) and failed to get the ball to Joe Smith on two crucial possessions down the stretch.
"Right now, I'm very disappointed," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who was more visibly distressed about this defeat than any other loss this season. "If we played well and lose, that's OK. But we didn't play anywhere near as well as we're capable of playing. That was about as poorly as we got back on defense all year, and we chose the opening round of the ACC tournament to do it."
Said Smith: "It's a very tough loss. I thought after we played a great game against them [last] Saturday [a 70-68 victory], we'd get a little bit of a winning streak going. But I still think we have a good chance to get into the [NCAA] tournament."
It was a tough couple of hours for Smith. Despite carrying the Terps for much of the afternoon, finishing with an ACC tournament-record 25 points by a freshman, it was his absence after being accidentally stepped on by Harold Deane that enabled the Cavaliers to take control of the game.
As Smith was on the bench with a bruised knee and wrist -- he had come out earlier in the half after jamming the same wrist -- Deane added insult to injury. The freshman point guard scored ** 10 of his team-high 22 in a stretch of four straight possessions. Smith left with 13:54 remaining in the game and Maryland leading 38-36. He returned 1:54 later as Deane was completing a three-point play for a 44-40 Virginia lead.
"You can't let that shake you," Williams said of Smith's being taken out for what looked like a more serious injury after replays showed Deane jumping twice on the supine Maryland star, who had tried to take a charge from Virginia's Jason Williford. "But we weren't playing at that high a level when Joe was in there."
Said Deane: "I thought it [Smith's absence] was a shift in momentum."
Without Smith, who also had a game-high 12 rebounds, Maryland looked like a frightened and tired team. Forwards Exree Hipp and Keith Booth combined for four-of-16 shooting. Booth, who played brilliantly during last week's victory over Virginia, had as many turnovers as points yesterday (eight). The Terps bench combined for 0-for-7 shooting.
Still, Maryland had a chance to win. After a first half in which the teams combined for 16 baskets in 64 attempts and the Terps led 23-21, Smith's injuries allowed the Cavaliers to build their lead to 54-45 with 8:22 to go. But Maryland closed to within 60-59 on a drive by Smith with 2:41 to go.
"There was still a lot of time left," said Williams. "But we couldn't make the right shots fall, and those cost us the game."
The shots Williams was referring to were a pair of ill-advised three-pointers after Virginia went ahead 62-59 on an uncontested 10-footer by Junior Burrough. First, Johnny Rhodes rushed a three. Then after a drive by Duane Simpkins was swatted back, Hipp missed a three. Smith didn't touch the ball on either possession.
"It [shooting outside] wasn't by design," said Smith, who missed an inside drive with a little under a minute left. "But the guys who took them thought they were good shots. I had no problem with them. They just didn't fall."
Williams wasn't so diplomatic.
"We wanted to go inside," he said.
The victory put the Cavaliers into today's semifinal against Duke, which struggled to beat Clemson, 77-64, in the second quarterfinal game. It also may have put Virginia (16-11) into the NCAA tournament for the second straight year and the third time in four years under Jeff Jones.
Asked if he thought the Cavaliers had secured a bid, Jones said: "Who knows? I think so. I would be crushed if we weren't. To be .500 in the league, to have the fifth-toughest schedule in the country, to have reached that magic number of 16 wins, I don't see how we can't be included."
Neither do the Terps. They can point to the same number of regular-season ACC wins and the same overall record as the Cavaliers. They can point to the overall strength of the ACC.
The Terps might have gotten a little help last night. Sixth seed Georgia Tech, which finished behind Maryland during the regular season, was blown out in its quarterfinal by third seed Wake Forest, 74-49. The defeat might have cost the Yellow Jackets (16-12) a bid, but Maryland still will have to wait a couple of days at least.
"You can't go on one game," said Simpkins. "We played three months, and we won a lot of big games."
Yesterday, they lost one. And tomorrow, they will find out how much it cost.