COLLEGE PARK — The regular season's biggest game was approaching, and Maryland coaches had scrawled the words "Play with Passion" and "Play with Pride" on the blackboard inside Comcast Center.
Head coach Mark Turgeon assembled the players, telling them the matchup with No. 2 Duke later that day presented the opportunity to finally claim the "signature win" that had eluded them this season. The Terps didn't disappoint, upsetting Duke, 83-81, in what seemed like a breakthrough victory on Feb. 16 — until they went out three days later and lost at Boston College, flattening the upbeat mood and squandering their hard-earned momentum.
So it goes for the Terps (20-10, 8-9 Atlantic Coast Conference), who play their final regular season game Sunday night at Virginia (20-10, 10-7 ACC), which is on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Maryland's ACC schedule has been characterized by the Terps' penchant for losing traction just when they seem poised to put together a run.
After beating then-No. 14 N.C. State in January, the Terps came out flat in a loss at North Carolina in their next game.
Maryland's last eight games are a victory-defeat checkerboard — win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Terps fans have been unable to savor big victories because they are almost inevitably followed by dispiriting losses.
Turgeon said Saturday that he's never coached a team quite like this one.
"I've had 9-9 teams in the league or 8-10, but there've been streaks in there — different kinds of streaks," he said. "Every year's different — that's what makes coaching great. It tests you to try to figure it out. As a staff, we're still trying. Hopefully, as players, they're still believing we can have a March run here."
Maryland enters Sunday's game on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble. A win over the Cavaliers — who are 17-1 at home — would not be enough to secure an at-large berth. The Terps probably need to win the ACC tournament to qualify, although a spot in the conference final would put them back in the conversation.
The ACC tournament begins Thursday in Greensboro, N.C. Maryland will be the No. 7 seed and play the winner of Sunday's Wake Forest-Virginia Tech game, which will determine the 10th seed. If the Terps advance, they would play No. 2-seeded Duke on Friday night.
There are various theories for Maryland's uneven performance this season. The young team — its top four scorers are sophomores or freshmen — may get too high after victories.
"We haven't yet figured it out," senior James Padgett said of the team's inability to sustain a run in conference play. "We just know we've got to continue to try to bring energy and effort. We've got a lot of basketball left to be played."
The Terps also seem to not yet understand what is required to win on the road. They have won just twice away from home in ACC play — at Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.
"I feel like the Duke win was an all-time high and then Boston College [on the road] was a low," freshman forward Charles Mitchell said recently. "We can't have these ups and downs."
After the Duke game, Maryland fans stormed the court. Among the happiest Terps was center Alex Len, who wore a broad smile as fans reached out to touch him.