COLLEGE PARK - They wanted to end their three-game homestand with another statement that they were better than the team that was blown out by Wake Forest and North Carolina, that they once again should be considered among the elite teams of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Instead, the Maryland Terrapins will leave College Park and play Duke on Wednesday with even more questions about the future of their season.
Even Terps coach Gary Williams, who felt that the two blowout losses earlier this month on Tobacco Road were blown out of proportion, admitted after his team's first home loss of the season, which came after two solid wins, that he is "obviously concerned."
Williams shouldered the blame for an 85-69 defeat last night to struggling North Carolina State before 17,950 at Comcast Center in a game the Terps never led and were not prepared for, according to their coach.
Playing a team that had lost five of its previous six games and was without its second-leading scorer (Cameron Bennerman), Maryland trailed by 26 at halftime.
A late second-half run during which the Terps trimmed the Wolfpack's lead to 10 points on two occasions did little to reduce Williams' ire. The Terps (11-5, 2-3 in ACC) lost to the Wolfpack (12-6, 2-3) for just the third time in the past 13 meetings. It was the second consecutive home loss to N.C. State after Maryland had won 14 in a row in College Park over the Wolfpack.
"The second half was nice, but that stuff is for losers," said Williams, whose team trailed 53-27 at halftime. "You don't get excited coming back like that in the second half. The time to play is when the referee throws the ball up to start the game and we weren't ready to play.
"You saw in the first half, two teams - one ready to play, one not ready to play. I'll take the responsibility for us not being ready to play. You don't have to go into any X's and O's. They just dominated us in every way possible in the first half. Until we play hard for 40 minutes with this year's team, you are not going to play particularly well."
Williams tried everything in the first half. He put in seldom-used Mike Grinnon with his team already down 20. He went with Mike Jones and Sterling Ledbetter for extended minutes, but neither made much of an impact.
With few other options on the bench, he switched to a zone defense and North Carolina State still scored with relative ease. The Wolfpack hit 10 of 18 three-pointers in the first half and made nearly as many field goals (18) as the Terps attempted (20).
"I don't know what happened," said junior point guard John Gilchrist, who was one of four Terps in double figures with 13 points. "People were standing around. I guess everybody was waiting for somebody else to take over."
Added Williams: "They shot it well, but they had open shots, too. You could blame our defense, but give them credit, too."
How bad did things get in the first half?
At the six-minute mark, the Terps had only two field goals. They finished the first half just 5-for-20 from the field. Nik Caner-Medley, who had 82 points over his previous three games, was 0-for-6 in the first half with zero points. He did come on in the second half and led the Terps with 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting and 10 rebounds.
Gilchrist hit two straight three-pointers from the top of the key, the first giving the Terps' their first field goal in nearly nine minutes. When Travis Garrison converted two free throws, the Terps pulled to within 39-21 with 4:33 left.
But just like that, the momentum was gone. Cedric Simmons scored five straight points and Engin Atsur (17 points) hit an open-three pointer as the Wolfpack took a 53-26 lead, its biggest of the first half. As the halftime buzzer sounded, Williams stayed in a crouch for several moments after both teams were leaving the floor.
He had a look of disbelief, though later he stopped short of calling it the Terps' worst half of the season. It was right up there, according to Williams, with the first half at Wake Forest and the second half at North Carolina.
"It's hard to judge. It was bad," said Williams, who was also asked how he can reach his team on the importance of playing 40 minutes. "I don't have an answer. Obviously, I would have used it tonight if I did."
In the ACC Tournament semifinals last March, the Terps trailed the Wolfpack by 19 at halftime before registering the biggest comeback in tournament history. Another comeback seemed possible, but just briefly yesterday.
They held the Wolfpack without a field goal for nearly 8 1/2 minutes and went on a 17-4 run to creep within 61-51 with 8:32 left. It was 63-53 less than a minute later, but Atsur hit two threes and a free throw to give his team some breathing room at 70-55.
"My mentality was let's get this under 10 and we'll go from there," said Caner-Medley. "But they just kept hitting big shots and daggers down the stretch. We just dug ourselves too big of a hole."
Wolfpack senior Julius Hodge, who averaged 28.7 points in three games against the Terps last year, finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds and Ilian Evtimov added 16 points and nine rebounds.
With fans chanting "won't get drafted" when he stepped to the free-throw line, Hodge had some fun with the Comcast Center crowd, banging his chest and pointing to the scoreboard.
"We know that Maryland is a good team and they were going to make their run," Hodge said. "No matter what we were not going to lose this game."