- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

In one sense, it was a typical late-season basketball game between Maryland and Duke. The red-clad fans at Comcast Center worked themselves into a frothing frenzy well before tipoff, rattled their papers in pretended disdain when the Blue Devils were introduced, raised the roof when the Terrapins ran onto the court and nearly went out of their respective gourds when coach Gary Williams thrust his fist in the air as he followed his troops.

And if further evidence were needed that this was a meaningful game, it surely was provided by the presence of Hall of Famer-elect Cal Ripken at courtside.

Yet this was much less than your customary be-all, end-all battle between the Terps and Blue Devils. Both have had extremely mediocre ACC seasons, Duke coming in with a lackluster 5-5-league record and Maryland an even worse 3-6.

Was that really Williams and Mike Krzyzewski matching strategy on the sideline? Given the teams’ accomplishments this winter, or lack thereof, you almost expected to see Bob Wade perched on the Maryland bench and Pete Gaudet on the Duke pine.

If the identity of these gentlemen does not instantly spring to mind, consider yourself fortunate. Suffice it to say they commanded the basketball bulwarks in College Park and Durham at a time not worth remembering for loyalists.

What the Terps and Blue Devils put forth yesterday was a joint effort marked more by intensity than talent. Neither team appears to have much of a postseason future. Nobody is picking inexperienced, undermanned Duke to add another NCAA title to its glittering resume although it was ranked 16th entering yesterday’s fray. And the disappointing Terps appear good bets to grace the NIT with their presence for a third straight spring.

Perhaps inspired by the sight of Ripken, Maryland put together its own version of The Streak, scoring 14 unanswered points during an early 19-2 run and holding Duke scoreless for more than 4 minutes. A bit later, the Terps found themselves on the fat end of a 29-9 score, but nobody expected that to last.

And, of course, it didn’t. Duke came as close as 56-50 midway through the second half, which Krzyzewski described afterward as “the one time we really had a chance to win.” Fortunately for the Terps and their followers, Ekene Ibekwe and the heretofore invisible Mike Jones contributed two big baskets each to keep Maryland comfortably ahead in the closing minutes.

Final score: Maryland 72, Duke 60, and so what?

Currently logged, or bogged, at 4-6 in the ACC, Maryland pretty much needs to win five of its six remaining ACC games to assure an NCAA berth, and you would be wise not to bet the farm on this happening in a tough and evenly balanced league. Like any other coach, Williams was loath to evaluate his team’s chances, but his stirring postgame defense of his tattered team sounded a bit forced.

“This team has a lot of good qualities, as I’ve said all season,” Williams insisted. “We’re not in disarray.”

And a bit later on Maryland having what he termed two intense practices before the Duke game, “We wanted to prove nothing is wrong.”

Krzyzewski, for his part, maintained his aura of the polished diplomat despite Duke’s fourth consecutive ACC loss — an occurrence as unlikely on college hoop fronts as that of Bobby Knight, Coach K’s one-time mentor, kissing the zebras after a game.

“Maryland came out with amazing energy and just outplayed us,” Krzyzewski said. “That was the story of the game.”

And what about, pray tell, his own team’s startling decline in fortunes?

“You have to keep a positive attitude and just prepare for the next game. We simply have to figure it out. Not everything I do works, obviously.”

So can the proud and haughty Blue Devils bounce back from such February calamity?

Coach K offered a little smile that could have been construed as rueful.

“I hope so.”

Meanwhile, Maryland goes back to work today preparing for Wednesday night’s next must-win assignment at N.C. State. Like Duke, the Terps cannot afford to feel good at this point, only mildly hopeful. The teams will tangle again at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 28, by which time Maryland could be assessing its NIT prospects — and possibly next season’s.

This Sunday, however, we’ll be treated to a Terps-Blue Devils confrontation that really does mean something: No. 1 Duke against No. 6 Maryland in a rematch of last season’s NCAA women’s title game.

Gary and Mike, eat your hearts out.

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