COLLEGE PARK - John Gilchrist's eyes were fixed on the floor of the Maryland locker room as he talked about how long and difficult the season has been. Nik Caner-Medley sat with his head in his hands and Travis Garrison answered questions in a mere whisper.
Moments earlier, a visibly frustrated Gary Williams acknowledged that he hasn't seen a team as inconsistent as these Terrapins in his 37 years of coaching.
Maryland suffered another brutal loss last night, falling to Clemson, the last-place team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, 97-93, at Comcast Center and missing a chance to all but clinch an NCAA tournament bid.
"It doesn't make any sense for us to lose this game," said Caner-Medley, who led the Terps with 23 points.
Maryland, which was swept by the Tigers for the first time since the 1996-97 season, fell to 16-9 overall and 7-7 in the ACC. The Terps have two regular-season games left: Sunday at home against No. 2 North Carolina and March 5 at Virginia Tech.
They probably will need to win at least one to be assured of a 12th straight berth in the NCAA tournament. Since 1992, only three league teams have finished the regular season 8-8 or better and not made the NCAAs.
"We're definitely going to make the NCAA tournament," said Gilchrist, who shot just 4-for-16 but led the team with 10 rebounds. "We're going to get a couple more wins. ... When everybody plays to their capabilities, we definitely can be good. I am just trying to find a way to impact the team in a positive way."
Added junior guard Chris McCray, who had 21 points: "It definitely hurts because if we won this game, we would have probably been a lock. Maybe this team plays best when its back is against the wall."
In a season full of big wins mixed with alarming losses, the Terps probably hit a new low when you consider all that was on the line and that they were playing a team that starts three freshmen. The Tigers (13-13, 3-10), who hadn't won an ACC game since beating the Terps on Feb. 1, never trailed.
"It's very disappointing, to say the least," said Williams, who had hoped that a double-overtime win at Virginia on Saturday would lift the Terps to a solid finish. "We couldn't do it back-to-back. That's basically the story of the game."
The Tigers came in as the lowest-scoring team in the league, but they shot 58.2 percent, including 62.5 percent in the second half. Clemson also made eight of 12 three-pointers.
And Maryland again couldn't stop Clemson senior center Sharrod Ford, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds in the first meeting. The Suitland native was even better last night, with 24 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocks. Three other Tigers scored in double figures, but it was Ford who stepped up when the Terps appeared to be on the verge of taking their first lead.
The Tigers had a 10-point advantage at halftime before Caner-Medley pulled Maryland within 58-54 with 13:43 remaining. Then Ford asserted himself, scoring eight straight Clemson points and blocking two shots.
Caner-Medley, who made nine of 15 shots and scored 19 points in the second half, made a three-pointer to pull the Terps within 64-61 with about 11 1/2 minutes to play, but Maryland would get no closer.
"When I looked at the schedule early on in the season, this is one of the games I really wanted to win," Ford said. "Being from here, I just really wanted to get this win."
Trailing by 12 with 4:39 left, the Terps mounted a brief rally. Mike Jones' two free throws with 2:20 left pulled Maryland within 87-81. It was only a four-point game when Garrison made two free throws with 1:44 to go. Caner-Medley hit a three-pointer to get it to 93-88, but it didn't matter.
The lasting image of a miserable night occurred just 2:19 into the game. Fed up with his team's awful start in a game that he had deemed as important as Maryland's victory over Duke earlier this month, Williams yanked his five starters.
"Of course, I was disgusted," Williams said. "We weren't moving. We weren't doing anything."
Just 2 1/2 minutes later - and after McCray got on his knees on the bench and delivered a passionate lecture to the rest of the starters - Williams pulled all the reserves who had replaced the starters.
Only seven minutes into the game, the Terps had six turnovers and trailed 21-6.
"When the second five got in there, they didn't have motivation to play hard because we didn't play hard," McCray said, "We have to rethink where we are as a team."
For now, the Terps are finding it difficult to explain their erratic play.
"I have no idea," Gilchrist said. "That's just the story of our team. We're up and down. ... This whole year has been so long. ... We're still trying to put the pieces the together. Teams are building chemistry as the year goes along and we're still trying to find our chemistry."
Next for Maryland
Matchup: No. 2 North Carolina (23-3, 11-2) vs. Maryland (16-9, 7-7)
Site: Comcast Center, College Park
When: Sunday, 5:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)