GREENSBORO, N.C. —- Maryland’s chronic issue for four months, the one thing the Terrapins never could solve, was an inability to finish what it started.
No surprise, then, the Terps finished exactly as they started in their first tests in November —- receding in the final minutes against a talented team.
The latest, and perhaps last, of Maryland’s patented fades came Friday in the Greensboro Coliseum, against a team it knows all too well. The seventh-seeded Terps spotted Duke a nine-point lead, frequently closed within a point and were left with an 87-71 loss to the second-seeded Blue Devils.
“That’s the story of our season,” senior guard Cliff Tucker said. “We were like that all year. I wish we could have figured it out early in the season how to close games. Today [it was] turnovers, missed rebounds, bad defense. It just killed us toward the end.”
The Terps (19-14) will discover their postseason destination Sunday night, just as they planned all along. It just won’t be the one they wanted.
The Blue Devils (28-4) saw to that despite playing the final 6:48 without conference player of the year Nolan Smith, who injured a toe on his left foot.
In that respect, the night unfolded in the opposite manner someone might have guessed. The Terps bottled up Smith (seven points), who especially struggled against Tucker. Maryland almost completely erased a nine-point hole at the half, snipping the deficit to a point on five occasions.
“I thought we were in pretty good shape in that game,” coach Gary Williams said. “To see it go away hurts.”
The bugaboo, as usual, was closing stages of the festivities, and a pair of calls sandwiching Smith’s injury might have helped sap any chance of a Maryland rally.
Miles Plumlee blocked a Tucker layup with 7:38 to go, prompting Williams to yowl for a goaltend in perhaps his most demonstrative outburst of the season. His request was not granted.
The Terps still trailed 65-60 when the Blue Devils secured a timeout call out of a scramble with six minutes left when it was uncertain if Duke had possessions. Out of the timeout, Seth Curry scored while drawing a foul, then made the free throw to make it a three-possession game. The Blue Devils would score nine of 10 points, extinguishing any doubt of the outcome.
The arc of the two hours was strikingly similar to the rest of Maryland’s season. It was the eighth time the Terps took a deficit of at least nine points in the second half and whittled it to five or less without taking a lead and eventually falling.
“We played pretty well for 35, 36 minutes tonight,” senior forward Dino Gregory said. “In order to beat a team like Duke, the fifth-ranked team in the country, you have to play 40 minutes strong. We weren’t able to do that tonight.”
Duke, which advanced to the semifinals for the 13th time in 14 years, had quite a bit to do with the outcome. Curry was superb in Smith’s stead. Complementary pieces Miles Plumlee, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly combined for 30 points.
And most notably, Kyle Singler —- an impossible matchup for the Terps —- scored 29 points for the Blue Devils.
Put together with Maryland’s late fade, it spelled the end for a team almost inherently incapable of completing games against strong foes. In the final 10 minutes, the Terps shot 3-for-15 from the floor, committed three turnovers and permitted the Blue Devils to score at least two points in 10 of their final 12 possessions.
“It’s hard to handle,” guard Adrian Bowie said. “It’s hard to swallow. At the end of every game we lost, we always felt like we should have won.”
It just didn’t happen enough. Most of Maryland’s regulars have no idea what it’s like to languish outside the NCAA tournament. Bowie, Gregory and Tucker, who ended their freshman year with a second-round ouster in the NIT, do.
It would appear they might again. The postseason beckons on Sunday, just as the Terps knew it would. Yet thanks to the same flaw resurfacing all year, Maryland’s mid-March reward won’t be the desired one.
“You come to Maryland thinking NCAA tournament every year,” Gregory said. “As a senior, you want to lead your team to the NCAA tournament. Not being able to do that hurts a lot. It’s something I’ll feel for a long time.”
—- Patrick Stevens