Victorious Terps on NCAA march

March 06, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- The six-year wait is nearly over. The eight-day countdown has begun. Barring an unforeseen and illogical set of circumstances, the long-suffering Maryland basketball team is going back to the NCAA tournament.

With yesterday's 70-68 victory over Virginia before a sellout crowd at Cole Field House that began in nervous anticipation and ended in wild, on-the-court celebration, the Terrapins apparently clinched their spot in the 64-team field.

The victory broke a three-game losing streak for Maryland (16-10, 8-8), but, more importantly, raised its record to .500 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and helped tie the Cavaliers for fourth place in the league. The teams will meet again in the quarterfinal round of the ACC tournament Friday in Charlotte, N.C., with Virginia (15-11, 8-8) probably needing to win to get its NCAA tournament invitation.

"This feels great," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who has overseen nearly five years of frustration that began with a snub by the NCAA selection committee in 1990, continued with two years of probation and included back-to-back losing records. "This was our best win of the season given the necessity of the win. There was not much good news when I got here. Sometimes, it was a struggle to make it to practice. But I'll take this kind of pressure any time."

Asked if he felt confident that Maryland's record overall and in the ACC would be enough to get a bid a week from today, Williams said: "It should be good enough for both of us. Until somebody proves to me differently, the ACC is the best conference in the nation. I'm very proud that we won three road games. Only two other teams in the conference did that."

The victory didn't come easily, which seemed fitting for all that Maryland has been through. After struggling in the first half, after seeing a 13-point lead with less than nine minutes left trimmed to three with 36 seconds to go, the Terps hung on by hitting six straight free throws in the final 34.9 seconds.

Maryland finished the game 27 of 30 from the free-throw line, including 21 of 24 in the second half. It was the school's best

free-throw performance since the first game of the 1991-92 season. Sophomore guard Duane Simpkins was 11 of 11, extending his streak to 30 straight, two shy of the school record set by Len Bias in 1985-86.

"I guess that's the type of year it's been for us," Simpkins said of the down-to-the-wire game, which ended when Virginia's Cornel Parker made a three-point shot. "Some people thought we'd falter at the end, when we lost at N.C. State and Clemson. But when it counted, we stood up."

After the teams played to a 30-30 tie in the first half, Maryland seemingly broke the game open when freshmen Joe Smith (20 points, 11 rebounds, five blocked shots) and Keith Booth (15 points) sparked a 22-9 run to start the second half. The Terps led 52-39 on a dunk by Booth with 12:17 to go, 55-42 on a three-point shot by sophomore guard Johnny Rhodes with 11:16 left and 57-44 on a pair of free throws by Simpkins with 8:51 remaining.

But the Cavaliers rallied behind freshmen Harold Deane and Jamal Robinson, who scored 16 each. A drive by Robinson cut Maryland's lead to 64-61 with 36 seconds left. But Simpkins then made a pair of free throws. After a follow by Junior Burrough cut it back to 66-63 with 20 seconds left, Booth made a pair. After Robinson scored again, Simpkins was fouled and made two more.

"We hurt ourselves at the beginning of the second half," said Deane. "We didn't have enough time at the end to come back."

Asked about the disparity in free throws -- Virginia was six of 10 -- Cavaliers coach Jeff Jones first declined to answer. But then Jones said: "It's a heck of a lot harder to guard them at the free-throw line than it was on the floor."

In fact, Maryland went more than eight minutes between field goals before Rhodes hit a turnaround in the lane with 2:45 left to go ahead 63-55. Despite scoring on 11 straight possessions and making eight of their first 11 shots in the second half, the Terps won by making only one of their last 13 shots from the field, nine of 24 in the second half and 20 of 53 for the game.

When Simpkins hit his last two free throws with seven seconds remaining, giving Maryland a 70-65 lead, the celebration began with fans waving signs saying, "We're Going To The Dance." As Parker's shot settled in the net and the buzzer sounded, the student section poured onto the court and engulfed the players.

"I'm sure the guys who've been here longer understand it more than I do," said Booth. "I'm happy we've still got more basketball to play."

Let the March Madness begin. The countdown has started. Maryland's six-year wait is nearly over.

NOTES: Maryland's fourth-place tie in the ACC is the school's best finish since 1984-85. . . . Smith finished the regular season with 496 points -- a 19.1-point average -- and needs four more to become the 10th freshman in ACC history to score at least 500 in his first season.

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