For Terps, NCAA bid gets the tears flowing MARYLAND

March 14, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Four years ago, the University of Maryland basketball team watched the broadcast to announce the NCAA tournament field in the privacy of coach Gary Williams' office. When it came and the Terrapins were not included in the 64-team field, the players stormed out of Cole Field House, angry and frustrated.

There was even more emotion at Maryland last night. After TTC sweating out the weekend following an opening-round loss to Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, then sweating even more as 53 NCAA teams were selected, the Terps watched as their angst ended and their celebration began.

With the announcement that Maryland (16-11) would be the 10th seed in the Midwest Regional and play seventh seed St. Louis (23-5) Thursday at the Kansas Coliseum in Wichita, the fears turned to tears. Williams couldn't hold back, bolting out of the room where his team was watching so his players wouldn't see him cry. Sophomore point guard Duane Simpkins broke down. (( Others just hugged.

"I think you've had to be here all five years to be able to appreciate today," said Williams, stopping himself at times, choking on his words. "This is a step we had to take. I wasn't sure this would be the year that we'd take this step, but we did."

Asked what it was like to wait through the selection process -- which included CBS announcer James Brown mentioning Williams as the last coach to take Boston College to the NCAA tournament -- the 48-year-old coach joked, "I've got some more gray hairs in about two minutes."

Said Simpkins, the tears flowing down his cheeks: "I was worried. I didn't know what was going on. But now it feels great."

It marks the first time in six years that Maryland is going to the NCAA tournament. In 1988, the Terrapins were seeded seventh in the Midwest Regional. They beat 10th seed UC-Santa Barbara in the opening round at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, then lost to second seed Kentucky in the second round. It is the first time in seven years and the fourth time in his 16-year Division I career that Williams will coach a team in the NCAA tournament.

It is the latest accomplishment in a season of over- achievement for the ACC's youngest and most-improved team, one that was picked to finish near the bottom of the league. Instead, Maryland finished tied for fourth on the strength of two freshmen, first-team All-ACC player Joe Smith and former Dunbar star Keith Booth, as well as three sophomore starters.

"It goes to show that a lot of hard work paid off," said Booth. "It's great for the University of Maryland."

The speculation is that the Terps, the fifth and final ACC team to get in, solidified their bid when Georgia Tech lost by 25 points to Wake Forest, a team Maryland swept this year, in the opening round of the ACC tournament. What also helped Maryland was that Virginia, a team it split with during the regular season, went ,, on to the ACC final before losing yesterday to North Carolina.

"I don't know if I was prepared for it [not getting in]," said Williams. "But things went our way."

In St. Louis, the Terps will face a team that was one of the biggest surprises in the country this season. The 21st-ranked Billikens started off 14-0 and 19-1. They led the Great Midwest Conference in three-point shooting for most of the season, finishing tied with Marquette at 38 percent.

They are coached by Charlie Spoonhour, who came to St. Louis before last season after nine years at Southwest Missouri State.

"They're a very good team," Williams said of the Billikens, who haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1957. "I know that Charlie Spoonhour is a great coach. We've got a tough game ahead of us."

The Terps also have an interesting draw. If they beat St. Louis, Maryland could wind up with a rematch against second-seeded Massachusetts Saturday. The Minutemen handed Maryland its worst defeat of the season, 94-80 in Springfield, Mass., Dec. 29. It could be another reunion for Booth and Donta Bright, his first cousin and former Dunbar teammate.

But to do that, Maryland will have to play better than it did in the ACC tournament, better than it did down the stretch of the regular season, when the Terps lost eight of their last 12. Maryland has the fewest wins of any team in the NCAAs without an automatic bid.

Sophomore guard Johnny Rhodes might have come up with a slogan for the Terps, telling teammates and anyone else who would listen, "We ain't leavin' this tournament."

While his players celebrated, Williams contemplated. It has been a long road back to the NCAA tournament, one on which Maryland was detoured and demoralized by two years of NCAA sanctions. But now the road leads to the Kansas Coliseum, which will hold its first college basketball game Thursday.

"Wichita," said Williams, "looked better than ever."

ST. LOUIS (23-5)

86 .. ... .. .. ..Mercer . .. .. .. .. ..52

90 .. .. .. .. ...at SMU, OT.. .. .. ... 85

84 .. .. .. .. ...Cornell .. .. .. .. ...47

78 .. .. .. .. ...at Creighton .. .. .. .71

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