DURHAM, N.C. - They staggered into packed, raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium, took a predictable drilling from a superior Duke team, made the same mistakes that have marked their monthlong slide.
And now, as their breathing room lessens, as their NCAA tournament hopes keep slipping away, all the Maryland Terrapins can do to regain some life is recapture their home-court advantage. Immediately.
Yesterday's 86-63 whipping by the No. 3 Blue Devils, Maryland's most lopsided loss since March 2000, provided another snapshot of the same, old picture.
The outclassed Terps (13-10, 4-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) missed a ton of shots, were awful at the free-throw line, did not get back quickly enough with their transition defense, turned the ball over in devastating spurts, refused to look for the extra pass. And their frustration boiled over early in the second half, when starting guard Chris McCray was benched after botching an inbounds play and having words with coach Gary Williams.
It was quite an exclamation point to a six-week stretch during which Maryland has gone 3-7 since last beating a ranked opponent - North Carolina on Jan. 14. Since then, the Terps have lost to six consecutive ranked teams and have tumbled hard onto the bubble in terms of their NCAA tournament aspirations.
To make their 11th straight tournament, Maryland most likely needs to win three of its last four regular-season games and possibly win an ACC tournament game. Two upcoming games are against ranked opponents - No. 15 Wake Forest (at home) and No. 13 North Carolina State (on the road). Three of Maryland's last four games are at Comcast Center, starting with last-place Clemson tomorrow.
Asked how much the Terps have improved lately, Williams said: "It's tough to tell when you play somebody like Duke. We're not playing the bottom of Division I basketball here in the ACC. But we have to be more competitive in a game like today.
"At the same time, our whole focus is on next week. We have to take care of business. This is our chance [to secure an NCAA berth], with the way the schedule falls. We have to take advantage of it when it's in our favor."
"It's a growing process," said sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, who led Maryland with 14 points and eight rebounds and was held to two points in the second half. "We're being thrown into the fire with the wolves out there. You have to be ready mentally and physically. [Duke] was ready, and they came out here and kicked our butts."
There was more. McCray, who has struggled throughout this humbling season as Maryland's shooting guard, had a meltdown early in the second half.
After a botched inbounds play with 16:42 left in the game, when McCray fielded the pass and let the shot clock expire to create one of the Terps' 23 turnovers, Williams sent McCray to the bench, where the player exchanged heated words with the coach and assistant Jimmy Patsos.
McCray, who had struggled with 1-for-5 shooting from the field and two turnovers, pouted and did not play for the rest of the game. By the end of the rout, he was sitting near the end of the Maryland bench, head in hand.
"I kind of reacted a little wrong out there. It was just in the flow of the game," McCray said. "It was my [fault]. I've just got to get over it. I can't really do nothing about it. I can't cry about it."
Said Williams: "Chris didn't go back in. It was a coach's decision. That's all I have to say about it."
Not that McCray could have made a difference. Not yesterday, not against a Duke team staring at its first three-game losing streak in seven years and protecting a gigantic home-court advantage.
The Blue Devils (22-3, 11-2), who won their 40th straight home game, opened the second half with an 8-2 run to take a 53-30 lead with 18:09 left in the game and went on cruise control after that. Duke led by as many as 27 and never by fewer than 19.
As they have done all season, the Blue Devils won with tough defense and offensive balance.
Inside, sophomore center Shelden Sheldon Williams abused Maryland with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Outside, sophomore guard J.J. Redick did not score for nearly nine minutes but still lit up the Terps for a game-high 20 points, mainly on 5-for-9 shooting from three-point range. And all over the floor, freshman forward Luol Deng (17 points) took care of the rest.
"Nobody wants to lose two in a row, and definitely nobody wants to lose three in a row," Deng said.
Until yesterday, three years had passed since Maryland had lost three in a row. Before tip-off, the Terps were serenaded with chants of "On the bubble." As the Blue Devils pulled away, fans chanted "NIT."
The last time the Terps failed to make the NCAA tournament was in 1993, which was the last time Maryland - currently in seventh place - finished lower than in a tie for fourth in the ACC. Maryland last went to the National Invitation Tournament in 1990.
"Accolades don't mean anything if your team doesn't win," Gilchrist said. "We really want to make this [NCAA tournament appearance] happen."
Next for Terps
Matchup: Clemson (10-14, 3-10 ACC) vs. Maryland (13-10, 4-8)
Site: Comcast Center, College Park
When: Tomorrow, 8 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/ WBAL (1090 AM)