- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

It had been three weeks since Maryland faced Virginia in a potentially vital basketball game.

Not much changed from the first game to the second.

The Terrapins, beset by defensive deficiency and rebounding woes in an ugly loss in Charlottesville last month, struggled with both for stretches last night before mustering an ill-fated rally in the closing minutes of a 69-65 loss to the Cavaliers at Comcast Center.

“I thought we played harder toward the end of the game, but there’s 30 minutes that goes by before we play at that level,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said after his team was outrebounded 45-32. “That’s not what it takes to win a game like this.”

It was a rerun both of the Terps’ previous problems with Virginia as well as a reminder of the up-and-down nature of a team yet to win consecutive conference games. Maryland (17-7, 3-6 ACC) again showed its ability to morph from a postseason wannabe to an NCAA-worthy team and then to something in between in a span of just a week.

J.R. Reynolds scored 23 points as the Cavaliers (16-6, 8-2) secured a .500 record in conference play for the first time since 2001 and won their seventh straight game, the program’s most in ACC play since 1982.

After playing four of five on the road, the Terps looked forward to a home-heavy schedule in the second half of conference play. Maryland finally had answered its home loss to Miami with a road victory against Wake Forest and hoped at least to hold serve the rest of the way.

So much for that plan.

Instead, the Terps are scurrying again, and Sunday’s meeting with Duke could take on even greater significance than usual for a team that suffered only its second home loss of the season.

“To come out flat at home just doesn’t make any sense,” Maryland guard D.J. Strawberry said. “In a game of this magnitude, with Virginia being tied for first in the league and us needing wins every game, to come out flat just didn’t make any sense.”

The Terps found themselves in a 59-44 hole in the middle of the second half and appeared to be doomed to a blowout loss after a lackluster opening 30 minutes.

Yet the mercurial Terps took another odd turn and furiously rushed to make it close in the final minutes. Senior Mike Jones, who struggled in recent games, spearheaded a rally and finished with a team-high 18 points. The Terps rattled off a 13-2 run, with Jones capping it with a steal and a transition dunk.

The Cavaliers got it back to a six-point lead, but Maryland stayed close. Eric Hayes hit Strawberry midair with a 30-foot pass for layup to pull within three, Hayes’ 3-pointer cut the deficit to two with 53.2 seconds left and James Gist’s foul shots trimmed it to 66-65 with only 11.4 seconds remaining.

It didn’t get closer. Reynolds made a pair of free throws to push the lead to 68-65, and Hayes missed a jumper near the 3-point line in the closing seconds.

Virginia’s Tunji Soroye grabbed the rebound, then made a free throw as the arena began to empty.

While the Terps’ defense tightened later in the game, their rebounding remained suspect throughout. Coupled with the inexplicable slow start, it was enough to sink Maryland.

“It’s like the same thing, but you can’t put your finger on it,” forward James Gist said. “I was talking to coach, and we can’t really put our finger on what it is that makes us do that.”

The first half was an unsightly affair, and much like the teams’ first meeting, the Cavaliers stretched out an early lead against the powerless Terps.

Virginia only got it to 32-18 — rather than a 20-point lead — and Greivis Vasquez seemed the only Terps player capable of generating any offense. He scored the Terps’ final seven points of the half to give him 13 despite a 41-31 deficit.

“We were sloppy on offense,” Williams said. “Lethargic I thought was a good term for the way we played early.”

Yet the Cavaliers shot 51.5 percent before the break, and the defensive breakdowns clearly vexed Williams.

It didn’t stop him from twice delivering his trademark fist pump — usually a pregame staple — as the Terps returned to the locker room.

But by the time he ventured back after the game, he possessed decidedly less pep but was far more despondent about the one night rather than his team’s long-term hopes for success.

“You’re never out of it,” Williams said. “Look at our league this year. Look at the things that have happened in the last few weeks. … We could have used a win tonight, but we have a lot of home games left.

We have to take advantage of it and be tough enough to win on the road. I’ve seen it happen before here.”

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