Terps can't win close ones? Hold on, Lefty haters, it's not as bad as you think

Phil Jackman

February 15, 1993|By Phil Jackman

The nature of the sports fan is easy to understand and categorize. All he wants is for his team to win about 80 percent of the time. That's a minimum figure.

With the University of Maryland, the rule applies with one notable exception: The Terps are supposed to win all close games, especially against ACC opponents, and particularly against teams from the state of North Carolina.

It's why anytime Maryland "blows another one," as happened in Cole Field House Saturday against Florida State, 87-84, a Vesuvian-type rumble commences.

"They never win the close ones. It goes back to the days of Lefty Driesell," testified one witness, who swore he was on hand in College Park for seven straight one- or two-point losses by the home team.

Memory, it seems, has a way of playing tricks on us, especially when it involves sports. For instance, beginning in 1980 and prior to this season, the Terps had played 29 games against North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest in which the point differential was four points or less.

No doubt the results will surprise if not placate the rabid rooter: Vs. North Carolina, the record is 4-6. Against Duke, it's 4-3, N.C. State an unbelievable 9-0, and Wake 3-0.

So let's check and see if good ol' Cornpone himself (Driesell) was truly the pits when it came to masterminding in close games as everyone seems to assume. Against all opponents between 1982 and 1986, Maryland played 54 competitive games and won 32 of them.

What tends to be forgotten in these discussions is the fact you have to go back the better part of a decade to find the Terps with winning records in the conference. Since Lefty's teams went 8-6, 9-5, 8-6 and 6-8 in the league in his last four years on the job, the Terps have been miles below .500 (24-63). Losing teams lose close games.

Surprisingly, even in close games against the Tar Heels and their exalted mentor Dean Smith in the '70s, Maryland held its own, going 4-6. However, it did make the mistake of losing five close ones consecutively by a total of just 10 points.

The thing is, Carolina holds a whopping 94-41 series lead over Maryland, so when on occasion the Terrapins do get close and have a chance for victory, they are expected to capitalize.

This litany of numbers is in no way meant to suggest that fans should grin and bear it following the Terps' loss to the Seminoles at Cole Saturday. The game was hardly a case of two teams playing heady, solid ball throughout with luck and circumstance deciding the final outcome.

Maryland's mistakes suggested the team hadn't practiced together in, oh, perhaps a month. For openers, it started out playing a style conducive to Florida State's scoring in triple figures.

Down a dozen almost immediately, the Terps blitzed to the lead and should have arrived at halftime with a comfy cushion against the sloppy Seminoles.

Up by 11 points and with more possessions than the opposition, the Terps left the court up only six, which was immediately wiped out by starring Bob Sura in the first moments of the second half. Maryland simply had no clue how to stop this skinny, 6-foot-5 sharpshooter. And for long stretches, the Terps had no idea how to attack State's strangely non-aggressive traps and press.

Terps guards simply dribbled into traps -- along the sidelines, no less. Evers Burns, who was at liberty to score 40 points, not 24, before fouling out, stood at the top of the key handling the ball for a while as if his team was in a freeze.

Burns, an overachieving senior, fouled out at a most inopportune time, just when his team was poised to make a valiant push to a lead with just 1:44 remaining. It was an offensive foul, 250-pound Evers attempting to finesse his way through heavy traffic with the ball. His charge at that point was to establish position and stand still.

As it had at the end of the half, Maryland failed to get a shot at the end of the game despite the fact it had time. It was guilty of 23 turnovers, but got away with it because the headless horsemen from down south piled up 28.

Substituting seemed to be a problem for both coaches, Gary Williams and Pat Kennedy, as both got virtually nothing from their benches while going with starters who were shockingly ineffective. In a game of uninterrupted six-, eight- and 11-point runs, not once did either team slow the ball down or do anything to break the other's momentum.

Down by two points and assured of a possession with adequate time at the end, Maryland fouled the deadeye Sura. Strange.

Kevin McLinton (32 points) made perhaps his only mistake of the day, tossing up a bad shot. Sam Cassell of Florida State (ex-Dunbar) took him off the hook with a terrible foul, hacking a guy and stopping the clock with his team leading by three points.

Down by two points again, now-you-see-him, now-you-don't freshman Johnny Rhodes tossed up a three-point attempt from the deepest corner.

Still, the Terps had a shot as a result of the Seminoles missing three pressure foul shots. What that shot amounted to was a futile heave despite Maryland's getting the ball with six seconds remaining and a timeout on the books.

Failure to use the timeout can be debated forever but, in the final analysis, it all comes down to the reality that the Terps blew a final chance, slim as it was.

Incidentally, in close games during Gary Williams' first three seasons at Maryland, the Terps have gone 11-16. It has been established the guy can coach, so what's the answer? Bring Lefty back to recruit.

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