CHARLOTTE, N.C. - More than seven weeks had passed since they had felt this sting, and the Maryland Terrapins are eager to erase it and start all over again.
As they digested yesterday's 86-82 loss to North Carolina State before 23,895 at Charlotte Coliseum, a defeat that broke a 13-game winning streak and kept them from possibly winning their first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in 18 years, the second-ranked Terps had plenty to contemplate after falling in the semifinals as the tournament's top seed.
There was the sense of urgency displayed by the fourth-seeded Wolfpack, which out-hustled the Terps, attacked them inside and outside and took double-digit leads in each half, then nearly gave away the game at the free-throw line.
There was the shaky, up-and-down Maryland offense that relied too heavily on point guard Steve Blake for scoring, and the Terps' defense that did not seal the perimeter enough and acted at times like it had never seen a backdoor cut.
Mainly, the Terps will remember how their valiant comeback effort fell short after an off-balance, line-drive three-point shot by Wolfpack swing man Julius Hodge gave N.C. State an 84-78 lead with 1:17 left, and how they could not catch a Wolfpack squad that crumbled on the line.
N.C. State, which nearly blew a 79-66 lead with four minutes left by missing eight of its final 12 free throws and committing costly turnovers, still had enough left to close the deal. After Maryland guards Drew Nicholas and Juan Dixon missed long-range three-point attempts in the final 30 seconds that would have tied the score at 85, Wolfpack guard Anthony Grundy made a foul shot in the final three seconds to clinch the victory.
For a team that had lost for the first time since Jan. 17 at Duke and had blown another chance to sweep the regular-season and conference tournament titles - Maryland also went down as the ACC's top seed in 1975 and 1980 - the Terps took the loss pretty well.
That's because Maryland (26-4) envisions itself as having locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament that begins this week. The 65-team tournament bracket will be announced tonight. The Terps expect to open at the MCI Center on Friday as the top seed in either the East or the South.
"Maybe we needed a loss like this. We ran off so many in a row," Dixon said. "Maybe we need to sit back and start all over again. This is a new season, and we'll take it from there."
"I don't think it should damage us. We're going into Selection Sunday thinking we should be a No. 1 seed," Nicholas added. "We were the No. 1 seed in probably the best conference in college basketball. We've been in the top five all year."
Even Maryland coach Gary Williams, who has dealt with losses for 24 seasons and is now 0-for-12 while trying to win ACC tournaments during 13 years in College Park, clung to the silver lining as the Wolfpack (22-9) celebrated only its fourth victory in its past 25 attempts against the Terps.
"You never like to lose, but we've won a lot in a row," Williams said. "Let's face it: We've beaten State a lot lately, and in close games, the law of averages can haunt you a little bit. State is on a roll.
"The feeling of a loss is sometimes a great motivator to prepare for what's next. We took everybody's shot during the season, and we did what we had to do to win the regular season. Now we need to get that mental edge back."
Maryland sure lacked that edge yesterday, in a contest it led briefly on several occasions but never controlled.
The Wolfpack jumped on the Terps early with three-point shooting to take a 24-12 lead, sliced open its defense with fast-break and backdoor layups midway through the game, then protected its lead with four three-pointers in the game's final nine minutes.
N.C. State completed a blistering two days of shooting beyond the arc by drilling the Terps for 11 three-pointers in 27 attempts.
Forward Marcus Melvin (19 points) hit four of eight threes. Grundy's game-high 24 points included 9-for-12 shooting and a 2-for-4 effort from long range. Senior point guard Archie Miller scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half and went 3-for-7 from three-point range.
In all, the Wolfpack's two-game total of 24 threes is the second highest in ACC tournament history. And it was Hodge who beat Maryland. After the Terps, led by Blake's career-high 21 points, produced a 12-3 run to cut the Wolfpack's lead to 81-78 with 1:53 left, Hodge barely beat the shot clock and finished a 14-point day with a leaning three over Nicholas.
"Sometimes the randomness of things - we are missing free throws down the stretch. Julius just stepped up and made a great shot. Great players do that," said N.C. State coach Herb Sendek.
"They had to hit a funny-looking shot to win, and we had two looks [from Nicholas and Dixon]. The shots were long, but we can make those shots," Williams said. "I really like our team. There's nothing that happened today that takes away from what we've done this year and what we can do in the future."
With the loss-and-go-home scenario looming in the NCAAs, the Terps would be well-served not to repeat the mistakes of this weekend. They were lackluster at times during a 26-point victory over Florida State, then lacked fire and execution yesterday.
Dixon wound up with 13 points, missing 10 of 16 shots. Senior forward Byron Mouton scored only three points in the second half. Center Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox combined for 30 points and 10 rebounds, but never consistently found holes in the Wolfpack's 2-3 zone defense.
And Maryland's man-to-man became so susceptible to the Wolfpack's aggressive cutting and dribble penetration that Williams had to resort to his rarely used zone defense.
Blake, who was spectacular for the second straight day with 11 assists, six steals and five rebounds to go with his 21 points, was in no mood to wax positive on the day's outcome or the team's showing over the weekend.
"We were subpar. That's not the way we play," Blake said. "We did not play up to our ability."
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