COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- If there is a more dangerous team than Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference right now, let's see it.
No one has to convince the Virginia Cavaliers, who had the misfortune of walking into sold-out Cole Field House yesterday, where emotions were running high on Senior Day well before tip-off.
After the crowd of 14,500 saluted seniors Terence Morris, Mike Mardesich and LaRon Cephas in a pre-game ceremony, the No. 16 Terps administered a dose of the same medicine they have been dispensing lately with stunning regularity.
And by the time the Terps completed a 102-67 demolition of No. 7 Virginia to win their fifth straight game and earn the third seed in next weekend's 48th ACC tournament, they wore the looks of Atlanta party crashers.
Maryland (20-9, 10-6) will play sixth-seeded Wake Forest -- whom the Terps took apart by 16 points two weeks ago to begin their winning streak -- in Friday's 9:30 p.m. quarterfinal at the Georgia Dome. Should they beat Wake Forest for the third time this year, they figure to face a rematch with Duke in the semifinals, minus center Carlos Boozer, who will miss the tournament with a fractured bone in his right foot.
But before anyone dreams of a victory in the final over top-seeded North Carolina -- the Terps have never won the ACC tournament under coach Gary Williams -- and what lies further ahead in March, consider the mind-set of a Maryland team that doesn't seem to care who it plays.
"I think we're the most dangerous team in the country right now," junior forward Byron Mouton said.
"We're about as confident as I like them to be," Williams added. "We've earned the right to be confident, but not cocky. We're playing very well, we've sustained it for a while, and we've got to keep it going."
What a show the Terps gave the faithful in their last appearance at Cole in this wild regular season. And what payback they laid on the Cavaliers (20-7, 9-7), whose smaller players performed a step slower than Maryland from the outset at both ends of the floor and paid an embarrassing price for their sloppiness.
The Terps traded baskets with Virginia for a while, before putting together a 13-2 run to break a 20-20 tie midway through the first half. Maryland, never threatened after that, proceeded to earn the most lopsided defeat in school history against a ranked opponent.
While beating a third ranked team in a row for the first time since former coach Lefty Driesell's Terps did it 21 years ago, Maryland notched its fifth straight 20-win season under Williams and most likely forced its way back into the top 10. Five nights ago, they took down No. 2 Duke on the road.
Maryland, which has won five straight by an average of 20 points since concluding a 1-5 skid with a home loss to Florida State, exposed the Cavaliers as the weak road team they have been all year. Virginia with a 2-6 road record in the ACC. That includes losses of 23 points at Wake Forest and 42 at Duke.
"I don't think we could have beaten anyone in the ACC today," said Virginia coach Pete Gillen, whose team fell to fourth place and will face fifth-seeded Georgia Tech on Friday.
Yesterday was all Maryland, all the time. Morris set the tone by hitting the game's first shot, a three-pointer, his first in three weeks. Morris also made a three to start the second half, and was a terror on the boards. He finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, for his 25th career double double.
Point guard Steve Blake left the game after collecting his second foul nearly four minutes into the contest. Into the void stepped backup Drew Nicholas, who has struggled with his shot and has not been a confident ballhandler lately. Yesterday, Nicholas was superb on both counts. After not making a field goal in his previous four games, he tied his season high with 16 points and burned the Cavaliers with a career-high 10 assists.
Then there was junior forward Danny Miller, whose inspired effort was instrumental in the 91-80 victory at Duke. Miller, who lost his starting job three months ago to Mouton, topped himself by producing his best game of the year. He scored a season-high 14 points, including 11 in the first half, when he sliced open Virginia's defense off the dribble. He added six rebounds and six assists and had no turnovers in 23 minutes.
The Terps were so good that center Lonny Baxter (15 points) and Dixon -- who did not score for nearly 15 minutes, yet ended up with a game-high 21 -- seemed like background music at times.
"We have a lot of great players on this team. Any night, somebody is capable of doing something great," Miller said.
The Terps, who took a 47-34 halftime lead, blew out the Cavaliers with an overwhelming second half, during which they broke down Virginia's porous man-to-man defense while shooting 72.4 percent. Defensively, Maryland smothered Virginia as it has smothered everyone else lately. Virginia missed 20 of its first 26 shots in the second half.
Fittingly, the day wound down with Mardesich passing to an open Cephas, who sent the crowd into delirium with a three-pointer to make it 98-62. Cephas then jumped on the scorer's table and raised his arms in triumph after the final horn sounded.
Morris said he probably would need some time to let the events of the day take hold in his mind.
"I've learned a lot over these last four years. It's really been fun," said Morris, who has worked on fixing a flaw in his follow through. "When I get home, sit down and watch some TV, I'll probably get a chance to think about things some more."
Cephas, a fifth-year senior who has had an injury-plagued career but has become a locker room watchman of sorts, tipped his hat to Morris, who passed on the NBA for his senior season.
"When Terence first got here, he seemed like a lost puppy in the middle of the desert," Cephas said. "He's grown to be a fine young man and a fine player. I'm really proud of him. He's going to do well in life."
Next for Terps
Opponent: Wake Forest in ACC tournament quarterfinal
Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
When: Friday, 9:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Records: Maryland 20-9, 10-6 ACC; Wake Forest 18-9, 7-8 ACC
Bracket: ACC tournament pairings.[Page10e]