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8 Upper

Devils in Blue Dress

By Tom Scocca | Posted 1/12/2000

From press row at Cole Field House during the second half of Maryland's Jan. 9 men's basketball game against Duke, you can actually hear the sound of futility. It is a thwacking sound. It is produced by Duke's players slapping and jostling Maryland's players while the Terps try to shoot or rebound. Duke is nursing a comfortable lead, and the sound carries in the hush of the arena. Juan Dixon hoists a three-pointer from the corner: thwack! across the hands as he follows through. He misses. No foul. Lonny Baxter drives the lane: thwack! on the forearm. He scores. No foul.

The thwacking does not, for the most part, involve flagrant blows from the Dukies. It's just extra physical business, right on the edge of legality. Traditionally, this is that sort of thing that gets ignored if the home team does it but draws penalties upon the visitors—part of the subtle network of privileges that make up home-court advantage.

The Terrapins, however, have forfeited any such regard when they host Duke. Last year, carrying a No. 4 ranking, they got slaughtered at Cole by the then-No. 2 Blue Devils, 82-64. The year before that, Duke reeled off a 104-72 win. Before the game today, the scoreboard predicted, with cheerful squareness, MARYLAND WILL WIN, but it was hard to take the prediction seriously. Terp Coach Gary Williams got a crazed ovation from the student section when he took the floor, promenading in front of the bench and pumping his fist, but his home record against Duke coming into this game is 2-8—part of a 2-12 home record for Maryland against Duke since 1985.

This is the first game at Cole since the announcement that the University of Maryland has cut a deal with Comcast Corp. to replace the old arena with a $100 million new one, which will be named after Comcast and is scheduled to open in 2002. With Duke holding a 24-20 all-time mark at Cole, this guarantees that the Blue Devils will end up with a winning record in the building.

Just to make extra sure of it, the Terps are now closing in on a 25th loss. This is what my brother calls a dog-chasing-a-car game: The Terps keep striving, but they aren't going to catch up. If they do catch up, they won't have any idea what to do. They are entirely and hopelessly overmatched, and have been ever since Duke popped out to a 9-4 lead. The refs, in their forbearance, are just going along with it.

How, exactly, Duke has gotten so thoroughly in control of the game is something of a mystery. The Blue Devils wear hep black jerseys and more advanced-looking sneakers than the Terrapins, but they don't really look more intimidating than the home team. They've lost only two games so far; Maryland has lost just three. This year's Terps are young and under-experienced, but so are the Dukies, who've lost the four best players from last year's national runner-up. The only real difference between the two teams is that Duke plays basketball well, and Maryland does not.

There's no other way to put it: Maryland does a crappy job of playing basketball. The players move out of sync. They throw passes off-target and catch them unsteadily. They bounce shots off the front rim from point-blank range. Their mistakes pile up, sometimes literally: Baxter flops to the floor on defense, trying to draw a foul, and Calvin McCall, the quarterback-cum-shooting guard, trips and goes tumbling over him, threatening to destroy two of the school's major sports programs in one collision.

Duke, meanwhile, is moving smoothly and efficiently. Maryland's ball-hawking defense does hound the opposition into turnovers, but Duke always has an answer. Again and again, the Blue Devils, led by Chris Carrawell, knock down open jump shots from the baseline. It's one thing to watch on TV, with moving cameras, as Williams' defense gets picked apart. It's another to sit still and look at a specific patch of floor and see one player after another spot up there, right there, all afternoon. The shots are always there, and Duke keeps hitting them.

Even when a Terrapin gets a good look at the basket, he misses. It's not simply that Duke is getting physical. It's a feedback loop: Maryland keeps missing lay-ups because Duke keeps knocking them around, and Duke keeps knocking the Terps around because they know it will make Maryland miss layups.

The beating continues, limping toward an 80-70 final. Baxter, usually smooth and efficient, ends up missing 16 of 23 shots, some half-dozen of them blocked by Duke's Shane Battier—whose listed height of 6-foot-8, it appears, is 2 inches taller than Baxter's own listed 6-foot-8. All-American Terence Morris shoots 6-for-15, for a hollow 18 points. The quick, bold-shooting Dixon goes 6-for-18 with four turnovers, including one where he jukes away from his own dribble and ends up carrying the ball.

Coach Williams hunches and crouches as the final minutes drag along, his suit collar curling up in back. On press row, a pale college-age boy and girl—in matching stone-colored chinos, blue shirts, and smirks—start openly applauding each Duke basket, with a dainty little pitter-patter. It's bad professional form, and a flagrant act of disrespect. I hope Williams, where he squats, can hear it.

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