Sunday, February 29, 2004

Maryland’s latest “Groundhog Day” episode yesterday left the Terrapins on a fast track to the NIT.

As they have so often this season, the Terps fell behind early, then rallied strongly in the second half only to lose at the end. Maryland missed crucial free throws, had defensive lapses and was beaten badly on the boards in a 91-83 defeat by No.11 Wake Forest at Comcast Center.

The defeat left Maryland’s string of 10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances on life support. In fact, the Terps (14-11, 5-9 ACC) are in danger of free falling into the conference tournament’s play-in game.

“We were good enough, if we started well, to probably win that game,” coach Gary Williams said of the Terps’ seventh consecutive loss to a ranked opponent. “We have done that quite a few times now. …

“This was a big game today,” Williams added. “Don’t be in a situation where that does anything to you in terms of the way you play. Make that make you play better. Hopefully you learn that — because we didn’t do it today at the start of the game.”

Maryland’s only hope of making the NCAA tournament is to sweep its final two regular-season games — including what would be a stunning upset Wednesday at 14th-ranked N.C. State, which is 14-0 at home.

The Terps play host to Virginia next Sunday in what could be a showdown to stay out of the ACC tournament’s opening-round game between the league’s eighth- and ninth-place teams. The Terps are tied with the Cavaliers for seventh place.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Maryland forward Travis Garrison of the team’s 3-4 record in conference home games. “But you have to move on.”

The loss also assured the Terps of a losing ACC record for the first time since 1993, the last time they missed the NCAAs.

This time Maryland’s comeback was cut short by the Demon Deacons’ Jamal Levy, who made a circus layup around two Maryland players after the Terps had cut a 16-point second-half deficit to two midway through the half. Levy (14 points, 15 rebounds) led Wake Forest’s rebounders dominate the rebounding battle 44-27.

After Maryland missed three of five free throws, including the front end of a one-and-one, Vytas Danelius and Taron Downey provided back to back 3-pointers to reassert Wake Forest’s command at 75-64.

Maryland had a rally to trim Wake’s lead to 87-83 with 36 seconds left on two free throws by John Gilchrist (26 points). But after a Deacons turnover, Nik Caner-Medley (20 points) hesitated before missing an outside shot, and Wake made four of six free throws to secure the victory.

The Demon Deacons (19-6, 9-5) won their sixth straight and are playing for a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. The unheralded Danelius, who often was left uncovered, led the visitors with 23 points, including four of seven 3-pointers. Justin Gray continued his hot stretch for the Deacons with 22 points, including 5-for-9 from long distance. Wake made 13 of 23 3-pointers overall.

“Our starters had three rebounds at halftime,” said Williams, commenting on Wake Forest’s 27-14 edge at the break. “You can’t expect to have a lead in a game like that if you don’t rebound with effort. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that. It affects everything you do. You can’t fastbreak because you don’t get the defensive rebound. You give them two or three shots at it.”

Williams sent a message to slumping center Jamar Smith, who played only seven minutes in the first half with no points and no rebounds. Smith was pulled just over a minute into the second half after committing a turnover, and the team’s only senior did not return after that. Hassan Fofana, a 6-foot-10, 290-pound freshman, took his place and finished with six rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes.

The coach also started D.J. Strawberry ahead of McCray for the second straight game, and McCray responded with a season-high 18 points. Caner-Medley finished with 20 points to break out of a scoring slump. The Terps’ defense also forced 22 turnovers, and used fullcourt pressure to get back into the game in the second half. But the rally fell short.

“When you make your bed, you have to lay in it,” Caner-Medley said. “We have put ourselves in a position where we have to win on the road because we didn’t win at home.”

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