- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

ATLANTA | Maryland didn’t complete one its self-professed mission Saturday at the ACC tournament.

Still, there’s a decent chance its trip south netted a far more valuable prize.

The seventh-seeded Terrapins’ stay ended two victories shy of a championship, yet Maryland still walked away from its 67-61 loss to third-seeded Duke with a sense that things are better than when it arrived Tuesday night.

During the stay at Georgia Dome, Maryland (20-13) rallied past N.C. State. It toppled Wake Forest. And the Terps hung around with the Blue Devils (27-6) before Duke eased past them in the final 10 minutes.

“We did all we could do,” forward Dave Neal said. “We came down here and won two big games. We made a great statement. I think we’re playing extremely well right now. Even though we lost a tough one, I think as a team we’re playing extremely well.”

Eric Hayes scored 20 points (11 in the final two minutes), and Greivis Vasquez added 14 points as Maryland was sent home to ponder whether its accomplishments in the last four months will earn it a spot in the 65-team NCAA tournament.

Certainly there are arguments, many of which coach Gary Williams rattled off. The Terps defeated Michigan State and North Carolina even before the conference tournament, and they clearly improved as the season progressed. Maryland owns a superb strength of schedule, but its road record (2-6) could give the committee that picks the field reason for pause.

“What we’ve done is for other people to judge,” Williams said. “I’m not part of that selection process. I know we’re a very good basketball team right now. I think that’s our seventh game against teams that have been ranked No. 1 at some point this year. … Hopefully that body of work is good enough.”

If a loss could actually help a team, Saturday’s just might. Maryland, playing its third game in less than 48 hours, didn’t seem tired so much as fuzzy but still managed to loiter around well into the second half.

However, Maryland’s brief switch to a zone helped Duke pull away. The Terps turned to the scheme, which they used to great effect earlier in the tournament, and soon closed with a possession. Yet the Blue Devils can deploy the shooters necessary to exploit such a defense.

Soon enough, Gerald Henderson made a 3-pointer from the wing. So did Jon Scheyer (22 points). And moments later, Henderson hit Scheyer in transition for a layup to increase the Blue Devils’ lead to 52-43. Duke scored the next two baskets, and Maryland was then in the unenviable position of chasing a team well-versed in asphyxiating opponents with its patience and precise offense.

“The run they made was probably the difference in the game,” Hayes said. “They got a decent lead, and we couldn’t get back from that point on.”

Maryland’s last chance came after Neal’s basket cut the deficit to 57-50 and the Terps made a defensive stop. However, Hayes’ 3-pointer rimmed out with 2:05 left, and the Blue Devils managed an offensive rebound and two free throws on the next possession to both milk the clock and pad their lead.

It ensured an apprehensive 24 hours for Maryland, which will assemble at Comcast Center to learn its fate. That’s an improvement over last year, but how much of one won’t be known until later Sunday.

“I hope our resume is good enough, and I hope we have some good enough wins to impress people,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “All we can do is hope and wait for now.”

Added Vasquez: “We went through ups and downs, and we definitely fought back… we never gave up, and I’m proud of that. It’s going to be tough, but whatever happens, I’m proud of my teammates and coaches. I’m going to feel the same way [Sunday] night whether we get our names called or not.”

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