Loss means little, but it reveals a lot

March 08, 1998|By John Eisenberg

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- "Disappointed?" someone asked Gary Williams in the bowels of the Greensboro Coliseum.

"Very," said the Maryland Terrapins' coach.

Why that reaction to yesterday's overtime loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals? Why were Williams and his players so down about a loss that won't do any harm to their NCAA tournament seeding?

Because, in the end, this was a game that showed why North Carolina is North Carolina and Maryland isn't.

Ouch.

That's a shot to the heart, and a shot to the heart always hurts regardless of its insignificance.

In a tangible sense, all the Terps lost yesterday was a lock on a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament; they could still wind up with one when the bracket is announced tonight, although the No. 4 seed in the West or Midwest Regional seems more likely now.

So the loss was hardly a crushing blow, particularly since the Terps still are playing well going into the tournament -- as well as they have played in March since Joe Smith was a freshman, Williams said.

"Maryland is definitely one of the top 10 teams in the country," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said yesterday.

They won't go anywhere in the tournament if they blow leads and miss key shots and free throws, as they did yesterday, but it's true they're playing at a high level.

That's why yesterday's loss hurt them so badly, even if it didn't really matter.

They had a huge chance, maybe their best in years, to do something about their overlooked place in the ACC's middle class, about which they had been complaining for weeks. But they made just two of their last nine free throws, blew a lead and wound up having to swallow yet another affirmation of their second-tier status.

They dominated the Tar Heels on Tobacco Road, played with great heart and led almost the entire game, but in the end, everything was still the same. Carolina was Carolina, back in the ACC tournament final again. And Maryland was still Maryland, back in the familiar, frustrating role as a foil for the anointed Tar Heels.

And what was the hardest part of all for the Terps to take? They knew Carolina wouldn't have lost a game like that, missing free throws, bungling key possessions, just giving it up.

The Tar Heels found a way to win despite playing poorly, which is what they do. One way or another, they almost always win.

The Terps? It's now 14 straight years that they haven't made the ACC tournament final. Gary Williams still hasn't taken a team there.

"Maybe we won a little more respect down here by playing so well today," Terps guard Sarunas Jasikevicius said, "but what we really wanted was to win the game."

That's why Terrell Stokes was almost too upset to talk to reporters, and Laron Profit was sitting on a bench with a towel over his head, and Obinna Ekezie was still shaking his head a bTC half-hour after the final buzzer.

They had just had a plate of Carolina superiority stuffed down their throats.

"I'm sitting here," Ekezie said, "and I still can't believe we didn't win."

Jasikevicius wore the same, nauseated expression.

"We were going to win, I was sure of it," he said. "It's hard to believe we didn't."

They didn't want to hear about the consolation of playing the highly ranked Heels so well, or their looming No. 4 or No. 3 seed in the tournament, or their strong finishing kick to the season. Not now, please.

"I will be honest with you. We never really even considered losing today," Ekezie said. "We were sure we were going to win. We wanted it badly "

His voice trailed off as he shook his head, a portrait of disgust.

How did it get away? In the end, there was one critical play. The Terps still had a two-point lead in the final seconds of regulation, with Carolina working the ball for a shot. The Heels' Shammond Williams pump-faked from 23 feet and leaned into Profit, who fell for the fake, jumped up and hacked Williams coming back down.

Williams made two of three free throws with four seconds left to send the game into overtime, and Carolina dominated from there.

Profit was close to inconsolable after committing the key foul so far from the basket.

Gary Williams took up for him -- "It was a hustle play," Williams said -- but Profit was furious with himself.

"Can we put this behind us? I guess we have to," Profit said.

Yes, they do. And things are going to get better in a hurry. The NCAA selection committee likes teams that finish strong, and the Terps finished 7-3, with two of the losses to Carolina. The selectors also like teams that play well against tough schedules, and the Terps went 2-4 against probable No. 1 seeds.

"We should get a 3 or 4 [seed]. I think we have earned that," Williams said. "Our record isn't as good as some other teams, but we have a lot of good wins, and we played the toughest schedule in the country."

He doesn't need to sell his team anymore. The Terps have done enough. A high seed awaits tonight.

But were any Terps smiling at that idea yesterday? No way.

Semi-frustration

Yesterday's loss was Maryland's fourth in as many years in an ACC tournament semifinal. The Terps are 0-7 in the semis since they last won the tournament in 1984:

Year, Opponent, Result

1986 Georgia Tech L, 64-62

1988 N. Carolina L, 74-64

1989 N. Carolina L, 88-58

1995 N. Carolina L, 97-92*

1996 Georgia Tech L, 84-79

1997 N.C. State L, 65-58

1998 N. Carolina L, 83-73*

*-Overtime

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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