CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - The shocking midseason stumble is well behind them, although the surging Maryland Terrapins have never gotten the sting completely out of their minds.
The Virginia Cavaliers are a much different story. On Feb. 6, when they stunned the Maryland men at Comcast Center by scoring 16 unanswered points late with a three-point barrage and took an 86-78 victory, Virginia appeared to be on to something big.
Instead, the Cavaliers have disintegrated. Their defense has betrayed them. Several players, including senior center and co-captain Travis Watson, have been benched recently for breaking team rules. They have lost seven consecutive games to tumble out of contention for an NCAA tournament berth and most likely even the National Invitation Tournament.
And after a one-week layoff, the Terps (19-7 overall, 11-4 Atlantic Coast Conference), winners of five of their past six games and seeking a second-place finish in the ACC, get a chance to even the score against their interstate rivals in the regular-season finale for both teams tonight at University Hall - on Senior Night, no less.
"We obviously don't like to lose at home, and [Virginia] got us here. It kind of hurts," said Maryland senior guard Drew Nicholas, the team's leading scorer (17.6 points a game). "We know we owe them a little something, but we're also playing for something else.
"They have their backs against the wall. I don't know what goes on in that locker room. I don't understand how you can get up for a game like [the victory at Comcast], then start taking a dive, so to speak. We really can't worry about them."
Virginia's second-half swoon has wiped the humorous edge off the one-liners that typically flow from coach Pete Gillen. His first sign of trouble came Feb. 2, when sophomore point guard Keith Jenifer was arrested on misdemeanor assault charges. Gillen suspended Jenifer indefinitely.
Gillen has since presided over a wholesale meltdown. After upsetting Maryland to improve to 13-7 overall and 4-4 in league play, the Cavaliers won a close home game against North Carolina State, then their season began to implode. Among their low points were a 14-point loss at North Carolina, a 19-point defeat at home to Duke, a 14-point loss at Florida State, a 17-point flop at home to Georgia Tech and a six-point dud at Ohio University.
All of a sudden, Virginia (14-14, 5-10) is headed toward the play-in game of this week's ACC tournament, while the Terps are trying to secure the No. 2 seed.
"I'm disappointed, very disappointed," Gillen said. "I hate losing more than anyone, but I'm more disappointed we're not doing the things we're supposed to be doing. We don't have a lot of rules, but [when] guys are coming late or missing class, we're not going to stand for it."
Watson and teammates Jermaine Harper and Elton Brown were late for a team breakfast before last week's Florida State debacle. Watson and Brown were benched and played sparingly. A week earlier, Watson had first lost his starting job after missing a class and skipping a mandatory workout.
Maryland has watched Virginia's fall with a quiet snicker, but the Terps insist their guard will be up tonight. For starters, they remember how three-point shooters like Devin Smith and Harper and guard Todd Billett ruined them.
"You have to guard people, and that was probably one of our worst defensive performances this year, maybe our worst," recalled Maryland coach Gary Williams, who is wary of the wounded rival he might encounter.
"It won't be easy. It's their senior night, and there's a lot of motivation for Virginia to play well in this game. They probably get up for us more than any other team in the ACC, especially when we play down there."
Senior point guard Steve Blake, seeking to bounce back from one of his few shaky games of late - he scored two points in last week's come-from-behind 68-65 win at N.C. State - thinks the atmosphere will serve the Terps well, as they gear up for a run at the school's first ACC tournament crown in 19 years and the defense of their national title. A victory also would give Maryland its seventh straight 20-victory season.
"This game still has a lot on the line for us. It could help our NCAA tournament seeding," Blake said.
Matchup:No. 13 Maryland (19-7) at Virginia (14-14)
Site:University Hall, Charlottesville, Va.
TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)