COLLEGE PARK - The Maryland Terrapins have regrouped after losing streaks before, but the coming week will present the team with its most challenging recovery test of the season.
The 14th-ranked Terps are sifting through wreckage as they prepare to defend their first national championship with their 10th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. Two weeks after winning its fifth game in six tries, Maryland has spiraled downward with a two-game losing streak that has shaken its confidence to the core.
Friday night's flameout against unranked North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament at Greensboro Coliseum left the Terps a wounded bunch. They figure to be punished further with a seeding as low as No. 6 and a trip out west when the national tournament field is unveiled tonight.
Maryland (19-9) became just the sixth No. 2 seed in the history of the ACC tournament to lose in the quarterfinal round, and looked awful. The Terps fell, 84-72, after having swept the Tar Heels in the regular season and blowing out Carolina - 6-10 in league play this year - by 40 points three weeks ago.
"We didn't show enough emotion and passion playing in this kind of atmosphere," senior Terps guard Drew Nicholas said. "I really wanted to play three times this weekend in front of 24,000 people. As a player, you have to want to do that. As a team, we weren't prepared, and that showed up. We just didn't play hard enough. It's as simple as that."
The Terps ran an undisciplined offense, defended poorly and got virtually no production from their struggling frontcourt of Ryan Randle and Tahj Holden. Nicholas took a nasty spill resulting in a bruised tailbone late in the first half that limited him down the stretch, and the Terps swallowed possibly the worst showing this season by four-year starting point guard Steve Blake.
But it was Maryland's lack of urgency that resonated the most and caused some finger-pointing in the team's locker room. The Terps are considerably bigger than Carolina, yet got beat on the boards, 40-30. That prompted Tar Heels center David Noel to say, "Honestly, we didn't think it was possible for us to out-rebound them."
Maryland, with all of its senior experience, played like kids against Carolina's many underclassmen. Remember, Carolina averaged 61 points in its two previous meetings with the Terps. On Friday, the Tar Heels shot 53.2 percent, the second-highest percentage allowed by Maryland this year, and made 11 of 23 three-point attempts.
Tar Heels freshman point guard Raymond Felton sliced through the Terps' defense to create dunks and layups for teammates or his own shots. Sophomore guard Melvin Scott hurt Maryland with five three-pointers. Sophomore Jawad Williams hit jumpers, cut to the basket for slams and had nearly as many free-throw attempts (13) as Maryland (15). The Tar Heels spent the game's last 8:46 in a double-bonus setting.
Maryland's offense drew the loudest groans from coach Gary Williams.
The Terps wasted a chance to capitalize on 16 steals and 23 Carolina turnovers by caving in with 12 turnovers of their own in the second half. Blake, who missed seven of 11 shots and is now 7-for-28 (25 percent) in his past three games, committed a season-high seven turnovers.
"We shot the ball too quickly and weren't able to get it inside. We're not scoring down low. We're not moving real quickly in there," said Williams, whose Terps shot 42.4 percent. "We've got to put the ball in the basket when we get good looks. We're not getting production inside. We have to look at our offense and find ways to do that."
What can Williams do to rekindle a spark in Randle and Holden? They were invisible in the post - especially Randle - by combining to take seven shots and grab just five rebounds. Randle is in a major funk. Two games after a six-point, one-rebound showing at N.C. State, the 6-foot-9 senior barely showed up Friday.
Randle scored a season-low one point on 0-for-2 shooting in a season-low 13 minutes, and sat the last 14 minutes of the first half after drawing two fouls. After hesitating on a baseline drive, then drawing a charge by Williams in the second half, Randle barely played in the game's last 15 minutes.
In all, Maryland's frontcourt rotation, including Jamar Smith and Travis Garrison, combined to produce 17 points and 10 rebounds. Three Carolina players scored at least that much, and 6-3 small forward Rashad McCants had 11 rebounds.
The whole mess was enough to get Maryland players screaming at each other on the floor and on the bench, and it elicited a stinging critique from Nicholas.
"I don't need anybody to motivate me, but maybe some guys need it," he said. "We have opportunities that we're not taking advantage of."
Blake said he was most disturbed by the edge Maryland lost after taking a 24-15 lead in the first half. Did the Terps unwisely assume Carolina would roll over for a third time?
"The fire was there in the beginning. Once we got that lead, it was gone. We didn't compete after that," Blake said. "We have to fix what's wrong with this team."