COLLEGE PARK - They talked about the slim chance they still have to make it to the NCAA tournament. They did the math, held out hope, insisted that a proud streak at the University of Maryland was still alive.
But after the way the Maryland Terrapins fell in yesterday's 91-83 loss to No. 11 Wake Forest, getting pushed around on the glass, lit up from three-point range and burned again by their ineptitude at the free-throw line, one had to wonder if Maryland believed its own words.
An announced sellout crowd of 17,950 at Comcast Center might well have witnessed the end of an era at Maryland, a few days before the demise becomes official. Unless the Terps do the improbable, Maryland will be watching the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years.
The Terps are 4-8 in their past 12 games and 0-7 against ranked teams since beating North Carolina nearly seven weeks ago. They most likely must win their last two regular-season games - or the ACC tournament -to avoid their first National Invitation Tournament since 1990. Next up is 14th-ranked North Carolina State, which is headed for a second-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference and is 14-0 at home this season.
This is how low the Terps (14-11, 5-9) have sunk. Maryland is guaranteed a losing record in ACC play for the first time since 1993 and has a losing conference record at home (3-4) after seven games for the first time since 1993 - the last year it failed to make the NCAAs.
It gets worse. Next Sunday's regular-season finale at home against Virginia, which is tied with Maryland for seventh place, could determine whether Maryland faces last-place Clemson in the ACC tournament's play-in game the following week.
"The fact that we haven't won at home means we have to win on the road against one of the best teams in the league to get into the tournament," Maryland sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley said. "We still have a chance. It's something that will be tough to do. You make your bed, you've got to lie in it."
"Our backs are against the wall. That's the way I like it," added sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, who led all scorers with 26 points and added five assists. "I've always been an underdog. We've got two games left. Go 2-for-2 and we're straight."
On a day when Wake Forest (19-6, 9-5) won its sixth straight game, completed its first regular-season sweep over Maryland in six seasons and clinched at least a third-place tie in the ACC, the Terps left their coach questioning their effort when they had no room to hold back.
The Demon Deacons simply were hungrier, overcoming 22 turnovers and spotty free-throw shooting.
They got a career-high 23 points from junior forward Vytas Danelius, who surprised the Terps with his 4-for-7 shooting from three-point range. They got 22 points from sophomore guard Justin Gray, who hurt Maryland with five three-pointers.
They got 14 points from backup guard Taron Downey, whose third three gave Wake Forest a 75-64 lead with 5:20 left. The Demon Deacons sealed the win by making 10 of their last 14 foul shots.
But it was a shocking lack of grunt work that doomed the Terps, who have earned most of their success this inconsistent season on pure effort.
When it was over, Maryland coach Gary Williams fumed while examining a 44-27 advantage by Wake Forest on the boards, where the Terps' lack of passion was so pronounced that senior center Jamar Smith was benched for the game's final 19 minutes and produced a scoreless, rebound-less afternoon.
"I didn't think we made the effort early. Rebounding is pretty easy. There's not a lot of technique involved with rebounding. Just go after every rebound," Williams said. "It's just going after the ball and having the heart to go through people to get to the ball. You have to make that commitment, or else you're not going to be a good rebounder."
Wake forward Jamaal Levy finished with 14 points and a career-high 15 rebounds, which nearly matched Maryland's defensive rebounding total (18). Levy's six offensive rebounds matched freshman center Hassan Fofana's overall team high for the Terps. And Wake's 18 offensive rebounds matched the Terps at the defensive end.
All of which rendered Caner-Medley's slump-ending, 20-point game and sophomore guard Chris McCray's career-high 18 points insignificant. McCray came off the bench for the second straight game behind freshman D.J. Strawberry (four points) and has averaged 16 points in that role.
The Demon Deacons went on a 16-4 run to take a 46-34 lead at halftime. The Terps fell apart offensively, got dominated on the offensive glass 12-4 in the first half and managed one field goal in the last 8:38.
True to form, Maryland did not go quietly. The Terps played defense with spirit in the first 10 minutes of the half, pounced on some Wake turnovers and cut it to 64-62 with 9:59 left. But over the next five minutes, all of Maryland's demons came out, and Wake ran off to a 75-64 lead, helped by three three-pointers and the Terps' off-target shooting from the field and line.
"We played well when we got behind. That gets old," Williams said. "You have to win this time of year. We've got two games left. We think we can win both. We'll see what happens."
Next for Terps
Matchup: Maryland (14-11, 5-9 ACC) vs. N.C. State (18-6, 10-3)
Site: RBC Center, Raleigh, N.C.
When: Wednesday, 9 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)