COLLEGE PARK - If the Maryland Terrapins are not backed into a corner yet, the walls are getting mighty close.
Minutes after the North Carolina State Wolfpack had made three-pointers and dropped free throws with precision in pulling away impressively to an 81-69 victory yesterday before a sellout crowd of 17,950 at Comcast Center, the youngest men's basketball team in the Atlantic Coast Conference was reminding itself that the big game is not over.
But make no mistake. After falling behind early by 11 points with an inexplicably flat start and starting slowly again in the second half, after leading briefly by a single point twice after halftime, after getting lit up by several outside shooters and getting torched by junior swingman Julius Hodge, the Terps were a very troubled group in their post-game locker room.
This loss left Maryland (11-7) to do some soul-searching as it experiences life in a seventh-place tie with Virginia in the ACC standings. This loss, the Terps' fourth in five outings, their second at home in conference play, and their first to the Wolfpack in College Park in 15 years, left Maryland with its first 2-5 start in ACC play since 1993. That was the last year the Terps missed the NCAA tournament.
Oh, yes. It's officially time to go there, time to worry about that 10-year streak being in jeopardy. Now, the Terps' youth will really be tested. Now, Maryland must focus on regrouping Wednesday at Virginia - where the loser will tumble into a last-place tie with Clemson - without contemplating the unthinkable, big-picture possibilities too much.
"This is not a good place to be. Every loss becomes big now," said Maryland senior center Jamar Smith, who scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed six rebounds.
"We're in trouble if we don't continue to try to get better. We're not out of it, but the margin for error is small in a league that's this competitive," added sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley, who had 10 points and struggled trying to contain Hodge.
Hodge scored a season-high 28 points, added nine rebounds and five assists - all game highs - and was a one-man wrecking crew at times.
Maryland coach Gary Williams, who had never lost at home to the Wolfpack and had beaten it in 23 of his 27 previous tries overall, pointed out that the Terps play five of their final eight games at home after the Virginia trip. He figured Maryland is still good enough to scrape together enough victories, based on the strength of the ACC - the highest-rated conference in the nation - for the Terps to get into their 11th consecutive NCAA tournament.
"I've been coaching a long time. A lot of things can happen. We have to get it done. I don't want anything handed to us. I like the fight," Williams said. "We're going to play hard to get [to the NCAAs]. We have to worry about Virginia."
There was little that was steady about Maryland's performance yesterday, while second-place N.C. State (12-5, 5-2) won its second ACC road game by being the picture of experience and calm, starting with its array of dead-eye shooters.
N.C. State, the league's top free-throw shooting team, made 23 of 25 attempts, and the Wolfpack was nearly as accurate on three-point attempts, making 10 of 19, including eight of 11 in the second half. The Terps made just two of 14 three-point attempts and reverted to their old ways at the foul line (9-for-18).
When Hodge wasn't breaking down Caner-Medley off the dribble or with sharp cuts to the basket without the ball, his teammates filled in quite nicely. Hodge did not take a single three-point shot. Guards Engin Atsur and Scooter Sherrill took care of that, along with senior forward Marcus Melvin. They combined to shoot 9-for-13 from beyond the arc.
"Our mental disposition coming into this game was that there was no way we were going to lose this game," Hodge said. "We had a meeting as a team [Saturday night], and we felt like there were too many close games lost on the road, and we wanted to get this done."
The Wolfpack showed it meant business right away. Melvin hit two three-pointers, scored the game's first nine points and pushed the Wolfpack toward a 15-4 advantage. To their credit, the Terps showed enough toughness and got enough production from their bench to claw their way back to a 33-33 tie at halftime.
But after taking their only leads - 44-43 with 14:19 left and 48-47 with 11:26 left - Maryland could not hold on. Instead, during the next 5:23, Atsur and Sherrill killed the Terps' momentum by making five threes between them. Sherrill's third in that stretch put Maryland into a 65-55 hole with 6:03 left.
With Smith and freshman guard Mike Jones scoring inside - but also each missing a critical free throw - the Terps trimmed the lead to 67-63 with 3:52 remaining. Then came the game's key sequence.
First, Atsur bricked a layup with 3:24 to go. Eleven seconds later, Smith did the same for the Terps. Then, with 2:43 left and a Terps defender flying at him in the right corner, Atsur launched the three that took the air out of Maryland and its crowd. That sparked a game-ending 14-6 run that featured a 9-for-10 finish at the foul line.
"To have that kind of confidence and courage is extraordinary," N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said of Atsur's shot. "I've coached a lot of guys, and after [missing] a shot like that [layup], a lot of guys would want to crawl under the nearest hole you can find."
Next for Terps
Matchup: Maryland (11-7, 2-5) at Virginia (12-6, 2-5 ACC)
Site: University Hall, Charlottesville
When: Wednesday, 9 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)