College Park-- --The game over, Maryland coach Gary Williams did his radio bit, addressed his players and spoke with reporters. Later, walking through a Comcast Center corridor, he stopped and chatted briefly with a couple of fans. "Well, I'm just sorry we couldn't win this one tonight," he told them.
Williams isn't one to feign emotion, so no doubt there was plenty of disappointment stemming from last night's 93-84 loss to No. 4 Duke. But in what's somewhat of a rarity around big games in College Park, this loss didn't feel as bad as it probably should have.
Entering the Duke game, on the surface, there seemed to be distinct possibilities to explain this year's team. Which was the better reflection: the embarrassing home losses last month to American and Ohio or the thrilling upset of top-ranked North Carolina on Jan. 19 in the team's previous game?
Some of the early returns certainly hinted at a bad season. And a bad team. In assessing this season's Terps, that was part of the problem. We have a tendency to make knee-jerk judgments as we race to label a team either good or bad. In the Terps' case, as evidenced by last night's loss, we're finally realizing that they're both - that they're good and they're bad.
That revelation is somewhat of a relief, considering that not long ago the team teetered between mediocre and awful. The Terps showed last night that they're plenty capable of replicating the effort from their big win, if not the final result.
"We played great for most of the game tonight," Williams said. "That's how we played at Carolina, just like tonight."
Just like this point one year ago, Maryland is a team with an identity crisis, trying individually and collectively to morph into something much bigger than the squad we met early in the season. They show bright flashes that make those stunning December losses feel as if they happened an eternity ago.
James Gist can play with determination and enthusiasm. Greivis Vasquez shows he can channel his energy in a productive manner. Bambale Osby can alternately function as the team's backbone and its heart. The challenge has always been - and will continue to be - consistency.
When you're talking about unseating the best, there aren't a lot of flukes at this level. If you're good enough to beat the No. 1 team in the country, then you're good enough to win each time you set foot on the court. Though last night's loss was certainly avoidable, it at least confirmed that the Terps' performance eight days earlier in Chapel Hill wasn't a fluke.
It also confirmed that there's still plenty of room for growth. Maryland is as capable of beating North Carolina as it is of losing to American. That wide range of potential leaves little room for excuses.
Williams said something in his post-game news conference that initially sounded rather benign. "We just didn't get it done in the second half," he said. "We're not perfect."
No team is, of course, but when the potential for disaster is equal to the potential for success, a team's growth and its achievements hinge on its ability to overcome imperfections. If the North Carolina win represented Maryland's potential, last night's loss illustrated how thin the margin of error is. The Terps certainly are capable of beating any team, but they lack the talent and depth to beat the Tar Heels and Blue Devils of the world while making mistakes.
"When you let up a little bit, that's enough," Williams said, noting that his team's performance and energy level were markedly different in the second half against Duke. If Maryland came out of the locker room the same as it went in it, it would've beat Duke last night.
In 17 games this season, the Blue Devils had never trailed by more than six points. Late in the first half last night, the Terps had them by nine. And with less than a minute remaining in the game, the Terps trailed by only four. As a team, they've come a long way since those December losses.
This program long ago graduated past the stage of taking comfort in moral victories, so let's not pretend that a near upset of Duke is reason to cut down any nets. ("I'm not building off this," Williams declared after the loss.) But it does indicate that this team has the ability to win every night, and the next time they beat a top-ranked team, it shouldn't stun anyone.
Through 20 games this season, the Terps have shown us who they were and who they could be. The struggle now for them is to figure out exactly who they are.