The optimism created by an early 13-game winning streak and last month's win over Duke has become a wistful memory for Maryland.
In his second season with the Terrapins, coach Mark Turgeon has produced a young team capable of competing against any school in the country. Since beating Duke, however, Maryland has lost three of five — including a deflating 79-68 defeat at home against North Carolina on Wednesday night.
The setback left the Terrapins (20-10, 8-9 Atlantic Coast Conference) in dire need of a late surge to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Turgeon used the word "disappointed" three times after Maryland trailed the entire second half against the Tar Heels. He cited poor shot selection, too many missed 3-pointers and the team's lack of enthusiasm at the opening tip.
"I didn't like the energy we started the game with," Turgeon lamented. "That said, we couldn't make a shot."
Maryland went 3 for 23 from beyond the arc, took nine fewer free throws than North Carolina and got only one more rebound than a team that started three guards and two forwards.
"It's a learning experience for us," said Terps forward Dez Wells, who scored 18 points but had four turnovers. "We didn't come out in our best way. We picked it up in the second half, but we didn't get key stops when we needed it."
The Terrapins say they have to put that game behind them.
"Just keep getting better and see what we can do, see where we can play for the postseason," guard Nick Faust said. "Hopefully, we can still make it."
The pivotal stretch begins Sunday night at Virginia. Maryland must improve its 2-6 road record in the ACC to gain momentum for the conference tournament next week.
"We have to finish out the season as strong as possible and do really good in the ACC tournament," Wells said. "I don't want to put pressure on my team, but I feel like we need to do really good."
The potential is there. The Terrapins have signature wins over Duke and North Carolina State, but that's offset by two defeats apiece against Florida State and North Carolina, as well as losses at Georgia Tech and Boston College. With a win over Virginia, however, Maryland can salvage a .500 mark in the ACC heading into the league tournament.
"If they get to 9-9, I don't think there should be a question because the ACC is that strong," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
The Terrapins played a soft non-conference schedule, in part because Turgeon didn't want to subject a squad with only two seniors to a tough early-season grind. Maryland assembled the second-longest winning streak in school history during that stretch, but the lackluster quality of the competition isn't going to impress the NCAA tournament committee.
Still, this team is far superior to the one that went 17-15 a year ago after Turgeon replaced longtime coach Gary Williams, the school's career wins leader.
"It's a little bit of a rebuilding thing here, but Mark Turgeon is as competitive as you can possibly be," Roy Williams said. "People don't appreciate it around here quite yet, but he's going to be like Gary. Starting out, people said some things about Gary. But Gary hung around and out-toughed everybody, and that's what Mark Turgeon is going to do."
For now, Turgeon's only concern is this season.
"I wanted to be better (against North Carolina) and we weren't," he said. "I have to keep coaching them the best I can."