GREENSBORO - Duke had not lost to Maryland in 14 straight games. The Blue Devils had beaten the Terrapins twice already this season by an average of 14 points. A Duke-North Carolina ACC title game was not only expected, it was assumed.
But the marquee matchup never happened.
Less than 24 hours prior to the Maryland tip-off, the Blue Devils had fended off a pesky Virginia Tech team, while committing a season-high 31 turnovers and registering a season-low nine assists. It was their sixth game out of the last eight during which the team had turned the ball over 20 or more times.
Still this was the ACC Tournament, and this conference belonged to no one except Duke or UNC.
But from the outset of Saturday's semifinal, the Terrapins were efficient, and the Blue Devils looked sloppy. Duke took better care of the ball than the day before and even found open shooters, but the hoop just seemed too small for the Blue Devils. Maryland missed just 12 shots in the first half, while Duke misfired on 25.
Down eight at the break, the Blue Devils returned to the court sluggish and slow. The Maryland lead grew as star forward Crystal Langhorne took over the game. After just three points in the first half, she scored 10 more and pulled down six of her 10 rebounds as the Terrapins built a 15-point lead with 13:32 remaining.
Then the Duke team everybody had been expecting finally arrived. Forcing the Terrapins to take bad shots and turn the ball over, Duke held Maryland scoreless while converting on eight straight possessions. Wanisha Smith's layup with 10 minutes left capped the Blue Devils' 16-0 streak, gave them their first lead of the game and brought the Duke faithful to their feet at the Greensboro Coliseum. The sinking ship appeared righted and headed back to its expected destination-the ACC title game.
But it was just a one-point lead and it was just a three-minute span.
Suddenly, the outcome of the game became sealed with one quick error. In fact, the play epitomized Duke's performance over the last several games. After forcing another turnover, guard Lindsey Harding sailed a pass over the head of open teammate Abby Waner. Instead of extending their lead, the Blue Devils' spurt came to a screeching halt. They had all the momentum and then instantly lost it, scoring only four points over the next eight minutes.
"We were a little fatigued at that point too, because that group had just really worked their tails off to get to that point," Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors said. "We made our run, and they withstood it, and they came back and made a run of their own."
Duke never challenged the lead again. The team predicted to bring home the program's first national championship was the first in seven years to not even reach the ACC title game. The team that crushed powerhouse Tennessee Jan. 23 has seemed absent of late-replaced by one that has become more associated with sloppy play and untimely turnovers.
The Blue Devils certainly entered the season with unfathomable expectations, but reaching the ACC title game was almost a given. Now they must bounce back in time for the NCAA Tournament, where they will undoubtedly have to face some high-caliber teams to win it all.
"This is only going to make us better," junior Lindsey Harding said. "We still have a chance to win our ultimate goal. We'll only get better from this."
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