CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- This game has loomed in the back of their minds all season. Before, the players and coaches on the University of Maryland basketball team knew that no matter what happened on a given day or night, there would be other games to play.
Today, no matter what happens here against Virginia at University Hall, there won't be another game until next season. Win or lose, the Terrapins will close out the 1990-91 season this afternoon. No Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. No postseason.
"You always like to win your last game, whether you're playing in a tournament or not," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose team is banned from postseason competition as part of the sanctions by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. "I'd like them to go out with a win because they've played so many great games this season."
Maryland (15-12, 4-9) doesn't want to go out with the memory of Wednesday's night 23-point shellacking at North Carolina State. Nor do the Terps seem satisfied that they have clinched a winning record.
"Having a 15-12 record when people predicted we weren't going to win 10 games is satisfying, but 16-12 would be even better," said junior point guard Walt Williams, whose return a week ago after missing six weeks with a fractured leg helped spark a win over Wake Forest.
Today's game will follow Senior Day ceremonies at Virginia, but while Cavaliers seniors John Crotty and Kenny Turner will be in Charlotte, N.C., for next week's ACC tournament, it marks the final college game for Maryland seniors Matt Roe and Cedric Lewis.
"I won't realize it until it's over, maybe sometime next week when the NCAA tournament comes to Cole Field House," said Roe, who spent his first three seasons at Syracuse. "It's a special game. We want to go out on a positive note."
Said Lewis, "It's a little sad, but I've been preparing for this for a while."
Considering the obstacles Maryland had to overcome -- the loss of three potential starters, including leading scorer Jerrod Mustaf, after the sanctions were announced; the loss of Williams, the team's leading scorer at the time -- it has been a remarkable season.
On top of that, the Terps had little to play for aside from pride. "It's something you want as a coach, but you don't always get," Gary Williams said of his team's effort this season. "A lot of teams look for excuses. This team had them built in, but they didn't grab on. Our mental toughness was good this year."
It was a season without controversy, a season in which sophomore point guard Kevin McLinton and junior forward Vince Broadnax emerged as legitimate ACC players; a year in which Walt Williams, before his injury, showed his pro potential; a year in which junior forward Garfield Smith made the transition from junior college to Division I.
It was a season to build on.
But there's one game left for Maryland, against a Cavaliers team that has struggled down the stretch under first-year coach Jeff Jones. Virginia (20-9, 6-7) has lost five of its past eight games, including five of six in the ACC.
"After we started so well (17-4), we've had some problems getting our intensity back," said Jones.
That shouldn't be a problem for the Terps today. This is their ACC tournament game, their postseason appearance, all wrapped up in the final 40 minutes of the season.
"We would like to end on a winning note," said Broadnax. "We've proved the critics wrong all season, and beating Virginia there would be another one for us."
And the last one, that much is certain.
Maryland (15-12) at Virginia (20-9) Site: University Hall, Charlottesville, Va., 1 p.m.
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WMAL (630 AM)
TV: Channel 7, tape delay, 11:45 p.m.
Outlook: The Terrapins (4-9 in ACC) played the Cavaliers (6-7 in ACC) tough for a half in the first meeting in College Park -- Maryland's first game without Walt Williams -- before the Cavaliers won, 76-62. A lot has changed since. Virginia has struggled, as senior guard John Crotty (15.0 ppg) has gone into a shooting slump and junior forward Bryant Stith (20.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) hasn't been the bull he was earlier in the season. With Williams (18.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.5 apg) back, Maryland should match up better defensively. But Maryland's defense has to be better than it was Wednesday against North Carolina State, when the Wolfpack scored 68 second-half points. Seniors Matt Roe (17.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Cedric Lewis (12 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5.3 bpg) want to go out in style.