COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK-- --The night's official attendance tied a mark set earlier in the season for the largest crowd to ever watch an Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball game. Of course, many of those fans were passing under the exit signs as the final minutes of the Duke-Maryland season sequel ticked away.
And as we watched the largest-crowd-to-ever-bail-early-on-an-ACC-game race to sit still in traffic, there were only a couple of thoughts worth having:
It's a good thing last year's national championship wasn't played at Comcast Center, where for one day each year Duke coach Gail Goestenkors might as well have her name on the lease. The Terps have dropped nine straight home games to the Blue Devils, all by double-digit deficits. In fact, if Duke ever wants to retire Lindsey Harding's number, it might consider hanging the banner from Comcast's rafters.
And for all the talk about what a difference a year makes, as this conference season draws to a close, the Terps find themselves in the exact same position as a year ago.
I'm not sure if that's refreshing or frustrating, though Terps coach Brenda Frese gave us a slight hint.
"Our expectations after you win a national championship are a bit higher," she said after last night's 69-57 loss to the nation's top-ranked team.
While the Terps certainly learned last year that two regular-season losses to Duke don't necessarily cripple your net-cutting fingers, last night's biggest revelation wasn't quite as reassuring.
The Terps returned five young starters this season and had the entire nation thinking about a repeat. As Duke built its double-digit lead last night, pulling down key rebounds and silencing the Terps' leading scorer for the first 20 minutes, it became clear that the Blue Devils have improved more than the Terps since the two teams met in the championship game 11 months ago.
"I don't think it's really about last year," said Duke center Alison Bales. "We're a different team."
And the Terps really aren't - which is why the postseason stage might not be as similar to last season's as it looks.
The Blue Devils returned three starters from a year ago, and they're a better team across the board. At 6 feet 7, Bales is not just big, she's smart, too. And Harding sure looks like the most complete player in the country. The senior point guard had a career-high 29 points last night, including her team's first11.
"I just want to make sure the NCAA doesn't give her another year of eligibility," Frese said.
Much of the Terps' maturation last season - and nearly all of their confidence - manifested itself in March, and they'll have to hit a similar late growth spurt in order to close the gap that currently separates Maryland from programs such as North Carolina and Duke.
It can be done. As good as Duke is - ranked No. 1 and still undefeated - the Blue Devils showed last night that they are beatable. Maryland just failed to capitalize on several opportunities.
Until last year's title game, the biggest difference between Duke and Maryland always seemed to be how the teams performed in their biggest games. Last night marked the sixth time Maryland set or tied the conference's home attendance record. The Terps lost all six.
While expectations for Maryland were certainly different this season, the Terps still find themselves walking in footprints set last year. Last night, they knew the consequences coming in.
This season, they've again lost to Duke twice in the regular season and to North Carolina once. With just one game remaining, the Terps will probably conclude the regular season with four losses.
And they'll most likely again enter the ACC tournament as the No. 3 seed, which means they'll have a first-round bye. That also means that the road to a second title will have some familiar mile-markers. The Terps will have to get past North Carolina to get a shot at Duke in the ACC tournament. And that, of course, will set the stage for the NCAA tournament seedings, where it's hard to imagine they could return to the title game without seeing the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels.
If it all sounds familiar, it's because we're talking about a scenario nearly identical to last season's, which makes it difficult to label last night's loss as devastating.
"In the big picture, if you say we had to lose this game to win another one, I'll take that," said Terps senior Shay Doron.
Of course, there is one big difference: Duke has already shown that it's a better team this time around. The Terps, losing another big game in front of another big crowd, have not.