GREENSBORO, N.C.—Two very different teams stepped on the floor Friday night—one was playing for its NCAA-Tournament life and the other, uncharacteristically, lacked any sense of urgency or rhythm.
Duke’s team slogan for the year has been “fight,” but that mindset and demeanor were nowhere to be found in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. The second-seeded Blue Devils trailed seventh-seeded Maryland the entire game and lost 83-74—the team’s second consecutive loss in the Greensboro Coliseum dating back to last year’s upset loss to Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64.
The defeat is also the sqaud’s first loss this season with senior forward Ryan Kelly in the lineup.
“I didn’t think we were hungry tonight,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They’re trying to survive, and they played like it. A lot of teams in that position sometimes get nervous or they make a lot of mistakes. Instead, Maryland rose to the occasion.”
Historically, the Blue Devils (27-5, 14-4 in the ACC) have been the ones to rise to the occasion and play their best in the ACC Tournament, having won the conference championship six of the last 10 years. Instead, Duke’s performance was very reminiscent of disheartening NCAA Tournament losses in recent years, while also marking the second time this year the Terrapins have defeated the Blue Devils.
As seen in previous postseasons, perimeter defense was again a major vulnerability in the team’s setback against the Terrapins. Maryland’s red-hot swingman Dez Wells—who was coming off a 21-point outing against Wake Forest Thursday night—hung a career-high 30 points on the Blue Devils. The 6-foot-5 wing did it in impressive fashion—with 3-pointers, dunks, jumpers and a 10-for-10 performance at the foul line—while playing in his home state of North Carolina against an in-state program that never recruited him.
“I thought they were terrific, and Wells built on his performance from last night,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s had a good year, and he’s a really good player.”
And to help fuel his teammates’ confidence and deflate what little Duke had, Wells slapped the floor—a Blue Devil tradition—during the game.
“I was trying to energize my guys,” said Wells, who was forced to transfer from Xavier last year after being expelled. “And at that moment I was thinking we have to get a stop. I do whatever I have to do to get my guys pumped. No shots at Duke or anything like that, I just wanted to get my guys energized.”
It certainly worked. Maryland was terrific from downtown and at the line—shooting 8-of-20 and 23-of-25, respectively. Maryland’s three other perimeter players—Nick Faust, Jake Layman and Seth Allen—notched 10 points each against Duke’s backcourt.
Unlike the last meeting, Terrapin center Alex Len did not outplay Mason Plumlee, but the former did enough damage—10 points on 5-of-8 shooting and eight rebounds—in the post to help his team reach the ACC Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2009.
Plumlee and freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon were two of the lone bright spots for the Blue Devils. The two played aggressively throughout the contest and finished with 19 and 16 points, respectively, to lead to the team.
Duke’s defensive woes were aggravated by its ice-cold shooting on the offensive end. The Blue Devils finished the game shooting a paltry 4-of-25 from downtown. And the “die by the three” narrative rang true, especially when junior guard Tyler Thornton had two good looks at treys that would have cut the deficit to three and five points, respectively, in the closing minutes of the game.
“We got a lot of good looks, but our offense wasn’t sharp from the start,” said senior shooting guard Seth Curry, who did not score in the first half but scored 15 in the second. “We weren’t cutting hard, things like that, screening hard, things like that. So, that kind of always plays into how you’re shooting.”
In the last matchup in College Park, Maryland crushed Duke on the boards by a margin of 40-20. This time around the gap was not as wide, but it was still enough—38-to-28—to keep the Blue Devils at bay.
The good news for the Blue Devils: this loss and underwhelming effort occurred now and not in the NCAA Tournament—when it is do or die.
"One of the things during this time of the year ... is that if you lose, it's final," Krzyzewski said. "Our team did not feel that. And now we have to understand that that's the way it is. I mean, if you don't do it, it's done. I don't care what your record was, or whatever. It's over. It's one and done."