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Maryland finds it tough to cover up face of defeat

DURHAM, N.C. — Durham, N.C. -- You ever seen the face of a big loss?

There it was on the Maryland Terrapins' bench, where senior Nik Caner-Medley had just taken his seat. He didn't say a word, just shook his head in disbelief. Is Duke really that good? Or is Maryland this bad?

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And there it was on the court, where junior D.J. Strawberry looked to the scoreboard, and then at Duke guard J.J. Redick. His eyes were glazed over like a boxer who'd had the past week knocked clean from his memory.

"Everything went wrong from the jump," Strawberry would explain later.

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The most telling face is always that of Terps coach Gary Williams, whose blood-red rubber mug could inspire a thousand Halloween masks. Last night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where No. 1 Duke dismantled No. 23 Maryland, 76-52, if you were looking for the one face that told you anything about the Terps' season, you need look no further than Williams, who wore it all night like a mark of shame.

A big game is about faces, and last night revealed the face of the Terps' program: It's bruised and shows few signs of hope.

"We're not going to win here every year," Williams said following the thumping.

In North Carolina and in Maryland, the knee-jerk reaction is to allow excitement to erase perspective. The reality this morning is that it's not March yet. Historically, there's nothing about the Terps' early matchup against the Blue Devils that helps forecast the rest of the basketball season.

"You play 30-some games in basketball, so one game doesn't kill you," Williams had said earlier this week.

Most years, the initial meeting has had little direct bearing on how the rest of the season played out. For example:

Last year, the Terps won the first matchup. Duke was ranked No. 2 at the time. Despite the big win, Maryland posted a 7-8 record the rest of the way.

The year before, Maryland lost the first game against a top-ranked Blue Devils team. The Terps won the ACC title that year.

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All Terps fans remember the 2001-02 season fondly. Maryland lost its first meeting with Duke. Of course, they were 19-1 after that and won a national championship.

That's all history. While an early meeting with Duke might dictate little, it sure can reveal a lot.

Maryland and Duke play a different kind of basketball right now. Duke is smart, calm and good. Maryland is none of those things. The Terps are a team that lacks a floor leader, and road signs and traffic cones couldn't help them navigate the court.

As has been the problem in each of Maryland's previous three losses, the Terps booted the ball all over the place last night, turning it over 29 times, nearly twice their season average. They lost the ball 18 times in the first half alone. For a comparison, the Terps suffered just 15 turnovers in their entire game against Boston College, a 73-71 win last month.

As much as last night's game disclosed the Terps' shortcomings to a national audience, it also reminded us just how dominant Duke is this season. Since a nail-biter win against Virginia Tech on Dec. 4, the Blue Devils have shown little mercy as they've torn through their schedule. In their past eight games, no one has come within 13 points - and that includes wins over three ranked teams, Maryland, Wake Forest and Texas.

Duke is a team that preys on weaknesses, which made Maryland the perfect foe. Duke scored 30 points off turnovers and had four players score in double digits (Maryland had just one). Seniors Shelden Williams and Redick continue to show why they're the best inside-out combo in the country.

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Redick finished with 27 points and Williams posted Duke's first triple double since 1978.

A good team can overcome losses this early in the season. History proves it. But last night wasn't the Terps' wake-up call. That came in a loss last week. Miami had humbled the Terps, and now Duke has exposed them.

No matter what time of year, a big game is about faces, and last night we saw what the Terps look like after going 12 rounds with a heavyweight. The best makeup artist in Hollywood couldn't have dressed this one up.

Maryland doesn't look like a team that can be on the court with the nation's top program. A game against Duke might not decide a team's fate, but it goes a long way to revealing a team's true self.

"It's not a program-decider or anything like that," Williams had said about facing Duke.

And he's exactly right: Losing to the Blue Devils isn't a program-decider. Still, even though history might suggest otherwise, last night's loss sure felt like a pretty good season-indicator.

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rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog


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