Coach won't let tough loss be letdown

February 02, 1997|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK -- He was alone with his thoughts in the minutes after the game, slumped up against a wall in a corridor outside the locker room, a rolled-up copy of the box score in his hand.

Pale, sweaty and unsmiling, Gary Williams seemed a portrait of misery after Maryland's loss to second-ranked Wake Forest yesterday at Cole Field House.

Then he started talking.

And, surprise, he wasn't miserable at all.

"We can take this," he said. "I know we can take this."

The Terrapins had just blown a 16-point lead at home and lost consecutive games for the first time this season.

After spending the past week ranked No. 5 in the country, they'll probably drop out of the Top 10.

Shortsighted alumni will head for the nearest ledge, but Williams, in the midst of the best of his eight seasons at Maryland, just shrugged.

"This is the real world," he said. "Everything was going great. We were on a super roll. People were saying great things about us."

But

"But this is what happens. The reality is that you're going to lose games when you play in the ACC. You're going to lose more than one or two games, in fact, unless you're a totally dominating team."

What about the consecutive losses? What about the way the Terps stopped playing at the beginning of the second half yesterday, allowing Wake back into the game? What about Wake center Tim Duncan's 25-point second half?

"Here's the thing," Williams said. "[Terps center Obinna] Ekezie got his fourth foul in the first minute of the second half, and I think it stunned us. We didn't react well to it. And we never really recovered. We just didn't play well in the second half. That happens. No one plays well all the time. And we can't beat a team as strong as Wake unless we play well."

He unrolled his copy of the box score and looked at the numbers, which showed that the Terps shot a very human 37 percent, well below their season average of 48 percent, and also were out-rebounded decisively, 50-36.

They were the kinds of numbers that normally indicate a blowout.

Instead, the Terps had the lead for all but five of the game's 40 minutes.

It took all of Duncan's considerable powers for Wake to overcome the Terps' tenacity.

And the Terps' Keith Booth still had a short shot to tie the game in the final seconds.

"We did a lot of great things today," Williams said. "We were in foul trouble and had to use some different people, and we fought incredibly hard."

It was suggested that the Terps' performance had done much to explain why they're still one of the nation's most surprising teams, even though they lost.

They were so brilliant in the first half, during which they built a 39-23 lead, that you almost knew they couldn't keep it up.

And they were dogged down the stretch, despite foul trouble throughout the lineup.

"We're 17-4 and we just split [two games] with the No. 2 team in the country," Williams said. "I would say things are OK."

Really? Three days earlier, he had been ejected from a game for the first time in his long coaching career; official Dick Paparo had mistakenly thought he was complaining about a call at Florida State, when, in fact, he was shouting at a player.

Was he still stunned, three days later, that Paparo had tossed him in the final minute of a close game?

"Surprised," Williams said.

And bothered?

He paused, choosing his words carefully.

"It happened," he said. "What am I going to do about it now?"

He paused again.

"I can't say much about it," he said.

Had he lost sleep over it?

"I got a lot of support," he said. "I lose sleep after losses."

L Yesterday's was certainly the kind that will cost him sleep.

But how the Terps respond to it is what matters now.

They have floated through a dream season so far, rising from the bottom of the ACC in preseason predictions to the top five in the country, beating Wake, Duke and North Carolina along the way.

Now comes the hard part.

In a way, Wednesday's game against weak North Carolina State at Cole is now even bigger than yesterday's game.

"The main thing in this league is not to respond too much to wins or losses, no matter how exciting or disappointing," Williams said. "It's my job to make sure the players understand that."

It's the baseball player's credo: as soon as today's game is over, forget about it.

"We have done a real good job of that after big wins this year," Williams said. "I feel real good about being able to do it after two losses, too."

The hallway was filling with more reporters who wanted to talk to him now, and dozens of fans and alumni were waiting for him outside the corridor.

The disappointment of defeat was evident on his face, but there was a lilt of optimism in his voice.

"We can handle this," Williams said as the crowds moved toward him. "I know we can handle this."

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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