The players knew what they had to do. They were quite clear regarding the magnitude of Wednesday's 71-67 victory, and equally clear about how it affected Maryland's postseason possibilities. By winning their second Atlantic Coast Conference road game, the Terps avoided a slide into last place and can see a manageable path to their 11th consecutive NCAA tournament.
After playing five of their first eight league games on the road, the Terps play host to five of their last eight ACC opponents, including No. 15 Georgia Tech on Feb. 19 and No. 16 Wake Forest on Feb. 28. Florida State, which is receiving AP poll votes and already has beaten three ranked opponents and the Terps, visits Maryland on Sunday.
If the Terps (12-7, 3-5), who are 3-4 against ranked teams, can knock off at least one more and finish with at least seven conference victories, they would seem to be a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament.
The ACC remains the top-ranked league in both the Rating Percentage Index and the Sagarin reports, and eight conference teams are ranked in the RPI top 50. Maryland is ranked 35th in the latest RPI Report.
And if you don't think the NCAA tournament tradition resonates strongly with Maryland's players, listen to them.
"Only so many teams are going to get [at-large] NCAA tournament bids, and that's our main goal," said Maryland sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, who ended a two-game shooting slump by scoring a game-high 26 points at Virginia and leading an effort that stopped a 1-4 slide by the Terps.
"I felt disgraced [by the losing streak]. I felt like I was disgracing this university by letting the great teams of the past down. It felt like the ghosts of this basketball program were haunting me in my sleep."
"We've got to build from here," added freshman center Hassan Fofana, one of several heroes off the bench in Charlottesville. He cemented his place in the Terps' rotation with five points, a blocked shot and a career-high 10 rebounds in 20 minutes, also a career high.
"We've got to win every game on the road we can," he said, "and we've got to protect our court and win every home game. We've got to keep the [NCAA tournament] tradition going."
Winning ugly looks like Maryland's recipe for success. The Terps truly were down and dirty and tough at Virginia, where they missed half of their 36 free throws, nearly two-thirds of their 67 shots from the field and recorded just seven assists with 17 turnovers.
But at least Maryland grabbed 24 offensive rebounds to Virginia's 12 and finally protected the lead it regained with 9:29 left after blowing a 43-36 halftime advantage. In three of their four previous losses, the Terps had led in the final 10 minutes.
Sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley symbolized Maryland's resolve. With about six minutes left in the first half, he took an opposing player's knee to his right thigh, causing a deep bruise in his quadriceps. Caner-Medley did not start the second half, but came off the bench to score seven huge points in 14 second-half minutes.
Caner-Medley is expected to practice today.
But with a 6-2 record at the halfway point of the conference schedule, the Wolfpack (13-5) is the surprise of the league. N.C. State is alone in second place, two games ahead of Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Florida State - each of whom has lost to the Wolfpack.
Junior guard/forward Julius Hodge, who took Maryland apart with 28 points on Sunday, is a league Player of the Year candidate. He leads N.C. State in scoring (17.9), assists (4.1), field-goal percentage (.502), free-throw percentage (.842) and steals (1.5).
One reason N.C. State figures to stay in contention is its excellent accuracy at the free-throw line. The Wolfpack leads the ACC by far with a .796 percentage.
Duke goes inside
Fans have grown accustomed to Duke being among the nation's top-scoring teams in recent years. The top-ranked Blue Devils have been known for their array of three-point shooters and a transition game that produced pinball-like scoring spurts.
This year's Blue Devils are doing it more deliberately on offense. Senior point guard Chris Duhon has varied the tempo, and Duke has been content to let its defense and its inside game - sophomore forward Shelden Williams, freshman forward Luol Deng and backup Shavlik Randolph - dictate the action more.
Duke ranked fourth in the ACC in scoring (78.4 points per game) before last night's 83-81 overtime victory over North Carolina. The Blue Devils were only allowing 59.4 points per game, tops in the league.
"They've gone from a team that used to hit you so quick [on offense] to a really good half-court team. They've adjusted to the fact that they have the most experienced point guard in the league," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.
"When we charted them [in the past], they averaged 1.8 passes per possession after they got the ball over half court. Now they want to go inside."