WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - The Maryland Terrapins probably can't play much better than they did while staging a basketball clinic throughout the first half at Joel Memorial Coliseum last night.
But a 40-minute effort of such quality remains an elusive target for the Terps, whose offense went into another prolonged stall in the second half, while No. 19 Wake Forest regrouped, erased a 10-point halftime deficit and pushed its way past Maryland with a hard-fought 93-85 victory before 14,345.
Maryland (11-6, 2-4), which was trying to beat its fourth ranked opponent of the season and put together its first two-game road winning streak of the season, fell into a seventh-place tie with Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
Wake Forest (12-4, 3-3) avoided its first five-game losing streak in five years and its own tumble into seventh place, and did it on a night when the school retired the jersey of Josh Howard, the Dallas Mavericks rookie and reigning ACC Player of the Year.
As Maryland reviews its latest episode of growing pains, it will see another tale of two halves. The Terps ran their most potent offense of the season while taking a 53-43 halftime advantage, then watched it all melt away as that other Maryland team, the young, mistake-prone outfit, took the floor for the final 20 minutes.
"We've got to come up with two halves, not just one. It's been killing us the whole season," said Maryland senior center Jamar Smith, who finished with 10 points and six rebounds, and missed a pair of layups in the second half.
"In the second half, we didn't look like we had the same energy coming out of the locker room. I don't think anybody played well, in terms of running the offense in the second half," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "We just couldn't score there for a while. It was tough to try to win this game. We had to put two halves together. We couldn't do it."
The Terps shot just 36 percent in the second half, went through a stretch of more than 11 minutes with just two baskets - during which the Demon Deacons took a 69-67 lead they would not surrender over the final 7:25 - and committed 14 turnovers, after recording only five in the first half.
Sophomore point guard John Gilchrist and sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley committed 11 of Maryland's 19 turnovers for the game.
And Maryland's defense could do little about Wake's backcourt, especially freshman point guard sensation Chris Paul. All he did was score a game-high and season-high 25 points on 6-for-8 shooting, including 3-for-4 from three-point range, and make 10 of 11 free-throw attempts. Paul had 17 points in the second half.
Sophomore guard Justin Gray scored 20 points and made all eight of his foul shots. Junior guard Taron Downey added 12 points. But it was Paul who made the shot of the game.
With the shot clock winding down and the Demon Deacons leading 79-75, Paul pulled up in the face of Gilchrist and buried a 22-footer from the top of the key. That made it 82-75 with 2:21 left.
To Maryland's credit, the Terps did not roll over. Gilchrist (12 points), who had an off-night with six turnovers and 3-for-11 shooting, hit back-to-back threes from the right corner. Freshman guard Mike Jones followed with a three from the left corner, cutting Wake's lead to 88-85 with 48 seconds left. But that was the end of Maryland's scoring.
The contest was physical from the outset, as it produced 76 free throws and three technical fouls, two on Wake. The Demon Deacons toughed it out by hitting 38 of 46 free throws, and their free-throw shooting kept them in the game in the first half.
But this come-from-behind victory was all about Paul.
"The kid just turned 18. Thank goodness he plays for us," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said of Paul. "I think that three was a dagger. His play belies his age, and it's something we've come to expect."
While building a 53-43 lead at halftime and producing its highest scoring output of the year in an opening half, Maryland assembled its best opening 20-minute sequence of the season.
The Terps rotated 10 players into the action, each of whom scored. They shot 51.5 percent overall, hit six of 12 three-point shots, made 13 of 16 free throws, and committed just five turnovers.
Maryland, which got a team-high 15 points from Caner-Medley and 13 points from sophomore forward Travis Garrison, attacked the basket with authority, shot the ball intelligently from the perimeter, and got major lifts from Jones and freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe, who each scored eight points in the opening half.
Jones was in the middle of the most important sequence of the half, during which he hit back-to-back three-pointers and took a charge in between those baskets. His second three finally opened up a tight game by giving Maryland a 33-26 lead with 6:05 left in the half.
Following a double technical foul assessed against Paul and Jones, Paul converted a three-point play point to cut the lead to 33-29, but the Terps quickly regained momentum behind their freshmen. Ibekwe hit two field goals and Jones two free throws to put Maryland on top 39-30 with 5:04 left in the half.
The Terps held the Demon Deacons at arm's length for the rest of the half. But it wasn't enough.
"I think there were certain stretches where [Wake] was playing harder than us [in the second half]," Caner-Medley said. "I'm not sure why that would happen, especially when you're up 10 at halftime."
Next for Terps
Matchup: N.C. State (11-5, 4-2 ACC) vs. Maryland (11-6, 2-4)
Site: Comcast Center, College Park
When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)