WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - The Maryland Terrapins needed just two hours to erase what had been a brutal three weeks.
The post-game laughter, beginning with coach Gary Williams, pretty much told the story. Yesterday's 73-57 whipping of Wake Forest, before a subdued crowd of 13,800 at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum, sent a feeling of catharsis sweeping through the Maryland locker room.
This wasn't just a victory. This was medicine for an ailing group of players and coaches.
The 17th-ranked Terps, stung deeply by Wednesday's 74-71 loss at home to Atlantic Coast Conference doormat Florida State and trying to avoid the program's first four-game losing streak in seven years - not to mention a free fall that made them look less than automatic for inclusion in the NCAA tournament - regained their footing with their most impressive effort of a maddening season.
"Hey, I get paid good. Everything is good with me. I feel happiness for these guys," Williams said. "These guys have gone through a lot for the past few weeks. It's hard to get criticized when you're in college. We've circled the wagons before. We were just resolved to win this game. I knew we were going to play well today."
Stop wondering for a minute which Maryland team is going to show up Tuesday at Cole Field House against North Carolina State. Stop wondering for a minute how the Terps could have lost five of their past six games before yesterday.
Sit back and savor a day when the Terps proved what they can be. The 23rd-ranked Demon Deacons, who have been swept this year by Maryland, know all too well.
Maryland (16-9, 7-6), which maintained a share of third place in the ACC, played with a steely sense of purpose and urgency not seen in recent weeks. They played fast and loose, with a tinge of desperation. Wake Forest never really had a chance.
The Terps, now 2-6 against ranked opponents with both wins coming against Wake Forest, went back to the basics with tremendous results. The Demon Deacons (17-8, 6-7) are probably still trying to count the big men who ran over them in the paint, which was where the Terps threw down the gauntlet.
From the outset, Maryland stubbornly pounded the ball inside and abused Wake Forest on the boards. The Terps were smart and patient on offense, making the extra pass into the art form that was their trademark a year ago.
With Byron Mouton (seven points) and Juan Dixon (17 points on 7-for-14 shooting, four steals) in second-half foul trouble, they were forced to play Terence Morris at small forward and rely mostly on a 3-2 zone, which smothered the Demon Deacons' shooters. Wake, led by Broderick Hicks (14 points), shot 31.5 percent from the field.
Center Lonny Baxter set the tone, leading all players in points (19) and rebounds (14). Baxter was merely the leader of a wave that included Mike Mardesich, Tahj Holden and Chris Wilcox, who came off the bench to produce 15 solid minutes after getting his first career start against Florida State.
Wilcox (six points, five rebounds) and Holden (two points, three assists, two rebounds) made passes worthy of a point guard. Mardesich had six points and four rebounds in eight excellent minutes.
The best answer Wake Forest had was forwards Josh Howard and Darius Songaila, who combined for 22 points, but were ineffective after the Demon Deacons put together a 19-5 run bridging both halves. Wake scored the first six points of the second half, before taking a 40-37 lead with 17:27 left.
After that, Maryland put together a 20-5 run to take a 57-45 lead with 10:28 left, and Wake was never the same. Maryland capped that run with the first of two three-pointers by point guard Steve Blake, who scored all 10 of his points after halftime.
But the Terps, who shot a sizzling 57.1 percent in the second half, dismantled Wake Forest with the big boys. Maryland ended up with 40 points in the paint to the Demon Deacons' 20.
"I don't remember the last time we were taken apart on the inside like we were today. Their interior passing was absolutely splendid," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said.
"What you saw today was a team that was faster, quicker and better at all five positions and on the bench. They were on a mission. They fulfilled it, and I don't think I've seen a team play better this year than Maryland played today."
This is what happens when a talented team gets backed into a corner and finally bares its claws.
Did you see the Terps running over each other to get to loose balls and rebounds? Did you see the way they brushed aside another shaky performance by Morris (six points, all in the first half), who is shooting 29 percent and has only 35 points in his past four games? Did you see Holden trading elbows and barbs with center Josh Shoemaker?
"I'm more proud than anything else. I was really down on my teammates before. I questioned their character," said Mardesich, addressing the team's recent 1-5 slide. "We started looking at each other, pointing fingers, doing things on our own instead of relying on our teammates. We were trying so hard, we were pressing.
"Today was a game to play because you love your teammates, because you love basketball. We played with so much emotion. We're going to be a good team if we play like that."
With four games remaining, including three at home, the Terps have vastly improved their chances of going to their eighth straight NCAA tournament. It will be interesting to see how well they are received Tuesday night. They had to suffer through a chorus of boos while losing that shocker to Florida State.
"One of the Wake Forest players asked me how we could lose to Florida State. I told him he'd better worry about why he's losing to Maryland today," Dixon said.
"We haven't had this feeling in our locker room in a long time. We just wanted to go out and have fun, and we were hungry today. When you've got fans booing you at home, that's not a good thing. They can boo us all they want. We're playing for the family in this locker room."