- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The middle of the paint Tuesday epitomized Maryland’s basketball season.

There was lanky Wake Forest, sprawled out across the lane in a 1-3-1 zone, forcing the undersized Terrapins to find an alternative path to success.

So it was all season. Sometimes, the unusually configured Terps discovered a way to hide their weaknesses enough to win. And sometimes, like the 65-63 loss to No. 10 Wake Forest, their flaws ultimately got the better of them at a crucial juncture of the season.

The Demon Deacons dwarfed the Terps, holding a 50-32 rebounding edge, blocking 10 shots and pretty much ensuring Maryland could not function inside of 15 feet in the final 10 minutes.

“They did a good job exploiting our weakness,” forward Dave Neal said. “They were relentless on the boards and fought hard. That’s what they do. They take some tough shots, but they know in the back of their mind they have three huge guys coming into the middle of the lane to funnel the ball back. They did a great job tonight.”

Neal scored a career-high 19 points and Greivis Vasquez had 16 points for Maryland (18-11, 7-8 ACC), which squandered a six-point lead in the final seven minutes.

Jeff Teague scored 17 points and Al-Farouq Aminu added 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Demon Deacons (23-5, 10-5), who snapped a four-game losing streak against Maryland.

While the Demon Deacons long ago solidified a claim to their first NCAA berth since 2005, the same was not true for the Terps. With a visit to Virginia (9-17, 3-12) looming Saturday, the home finale represented the last guaranteed chance to produce emphatic evidence for the selection committee.

Certainly, the victories in hand against Michigan State and North Carolina will look good when the committee sequesters itself next week in Indianapolis, but the prospect of another Top 25 victory possessed plenty of allure for a Maryland bunch that has vacillated between a team bound for the NCAA and the NIT over the last month.

That victory wasn’t secured Tuesday night, a result that ensures some nervous nights in the coming days for the Terps.

Should Maryland’s players receive any sleep, they no doubt will dream of Wake Forest’s giant front line. The Demon Deacons start three players who stand at least 6-foot-9. Maryland’s two frontcourt starters are listed at 6-7.

“Every time we got it in there, it seemed like they swatted it away,” coach Gary Williams. “It’s going to happen. We’re not the biggest team this year. But you compete.”

That they did, building an 11-point lead in the first half. The edge didn’t last, and the Demon Deacons needed about five minutes in the second half to build a 41-37 lead.

Neal, though, prevented a blowout, connecting on three 3-pointers in a little more than two minutes in what he hoped would be his final home game. Not only did it lead to a deafening monosyllabic chant of Neal’s name among the raucous crowd, it also ignited Maryland to build a 54-48 advantage.

Yet for all of Neal’s slick shooting and Vasquez’s floor-slapping antics, it didn’t prevent a Wake Forest counterpunch. Consecutive 3-pointers erased the Maryland lead, and Teague followed up with a one-handed slam from the wing and his own greeting to Neal and the Terps to make it 57-54.

The Terps stayed close until the closing minutes, pulling within 59-58 on Neal’s tip-in with 1:19 left. But James Johnson’s putback seconds later extended the lead back to three, and the Terps could never get any closer until Neal’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

“We were in a position to win that game, and that’s what you try to do,” Williams said. “When you play the 10th-ranked team in the country, you’re not going to win by 20. You try to put yourself where in those last 10 minutes you have a shot. We had a shot.”

One Maryland couldn’t convert. So instead of an unusually comfortable feeling on a night fellow tournament contenders Cincinnati, Georgetown and Kansas State suffered potentially crippling losses, the Terps again are simmering in a situation with little margin for error entering the regular-season finale.

“It’s really emotional for me right now because I wanted that game so bad,” Vasquez said. “Losing like this is driving me crazy. I hate losing, and then to lose like that, I can’t get over it right now.”

He will need to. It’s pretty much a requirement if Maryland is to uncover yet another avenue to victory, one they couldn’t quite discover in time against Wake Forest.

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