- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The ACC’s two northern-most schools don’t want to head any farther south.

But the loser of tonight’s game between the Maryland Terrapins and Virginia Cavaliers at University Hall will do just that, falling into a last place tie with Clemson in the conference.

The winner, meanwhile, will have a better chance of avoiding the conference tournament play-in game and — more importantly — keeping alive diminishing chances of a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Neither team wants to admit it faces a crisis, but the loser clearly will be a long shot to make the NCAAs. In danger for the Terrapins (11-7, 2-5 ACC) is a streak of 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances, a string that likely will end if they can’t quickly reverse their recent slide against the Cavaliers (12-6, 2-5).

“I think that in terms of being in trouble, we’re in trouble if we don’t continue to try to get better,” Terps forward Nik Caner-Medley said.

The Terps have struggled mostly against ranked teams, but their 81-69 loss to N.C. State on Sunday was particularly troubling. They had beaten the Wolfpack at home 14 straight years, and the defeat showed they still are vulnerable to 3-point shooters and perhaps have lost the comeback ability that fueled upsets of No.1 Florida and No.9 North Carolina earlier this season.

“Right now we’re not doing anything particularly well,” coach Gary Williams said. “We’re just playing good enough to lose. We have to learn how to finish. The effort’s there in terms of how hard we’re playing. We just have to be a little smarter.”

Said guard John Gilchrist: “Your emotions are high. You get a big win or a big loss, and you have to stay even [tempered]. You have to learn it’s a marathon.”

The Terps have been bedeviled by foul problems, though the team’s depth mostly has countered it. However, Maryland isn’t rebounding effectively and has trouble penetrating zone defenses. The Terps’ balanced scoring keeps defenses guessing, but they lack a go-to scorer late in tight games.

Hence, the inexperienced Terps have proved vulnerable against more mature opponents in the final minutes of close contests.

While it wasn’t a problem earlier this season against lesser nonconference teams, Maryland’s fearless style often has been neutralized against better ACC foes. Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest withstood Maryland rallies in close games recently.

Still, Williams isn’t daunted by the prospect of possibly needing a 6-3 finish to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament.

“It doesn’t really change [our approach],” he said. “We know if we can get it going we still have a chance to get into the upper division of the league. Maybe we’ll be able to make that happen.”

Virginia also is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament again. The Cavaliers are a solid team at home, where they have posted a 2-1 ACC mark. But another drought (0-4) on the road has undermined a promising program. While Maryland-Virginia isn’t the hottest ACC rivalry, it’s often a rousing game on both courts.

“It’s very important,” Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. “Home games are more critical. We have to get this one.”

Said Williams: “[Virginia’s] dangerous because they can play well. They’re like us in they can play good at times. They’re a lot of similarities.”

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