UM mission no longer impossible

March 12, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Where was Maryland freshman Drew Nicholas in 1984, the previous time the Terps reached the ACC tournament final?

"I was 2 years old, probably just starting to walk with my little basketball," Nicholas said, laughing.

Gary Williams was coaching at Boston College. Junior forward Terence Morris was a 5-year-old pup in Frederick. Freshman point guard Steve Blake was 3, "probably playing ball."

For any other top 20 program, the conference championship game is little more than a steppingstone. But for Maryland, the ACC tournament final had become an impossible mountain.

The Joe Smith teams didn't get there. The Steve Francis team didn't get there. But a team picked to finish fourth in the conference is there after yesterday's 64-61 victory over North Carolina State.

Fittingly, the final ascent was excruciating. Beating N.C. State shouldn't have been so difficult. Winning the ACC wouldn't be the same thing as winning the NCAA. But the championship game is a pinnacle, nonetheless.

The achievement might provide little tangible benefit -- a loss to Duke today, and the Terps probably won't end up with a higher NCAA seed. But as any Maryland fan would attest, there is more to college basketball than RPIs.

Once upon a time, before the rise of March Madness, college basketball was about history and emotion, grudges and rivalries. At Maryland, it still is. The school has never reached the Final Four. And the suspicion that the four North Carolina schools control the ACC only adds to the sense of inferiority in College Park.

Only six of the 47 ACC tournaments have been played outside of North Carolina. Only three have been played in Maryland. The past six have been won by North Carolina schools.

Thus, when Williams ended his streak of five straight ACC semifinal defeats yesterday, he couldn't resist pointing out, "None of those games was in Baltimore."

Rational or not, that's the Maryland mentality. Fans of any other top 20 program might have yawned after yesterday's victory at the Charlotte Coliseum. The vocal Terps' contingent stood and roared, savoring the triumph in enemy territory.

"A guy on the elevator told me today he was here 44 years, and he was apologizing for missing two," said Williams, a Maryland alum who played in the days when the conference's only NCAA bid went to the tournament champion. "For those people, it's got to be big."

It's big, all right -- for Williams, for the players, for everyone.

Williams has beaten Duke at Duke this season, and the ACC final represents another career breakthrough. Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins won the tournament three times, for goodness' sake. Maybe it's finally Williams' turn, not just to win a conference championship, but get past the NCAA's Sweet 16.

"You get a lot of criticism in this business," Maryland junior Mike Mardesich said. "Hopefully, he can stick this in everyone's face."

Williams wasn't willing to go that far -- he knew how close Maryland came to defeat yesterday. Told by a reporter that he looked unusually calm on the sidelines, Williams responded, "I was calm the last four minutes. I usually calm down when I'm scared."

Plain and simple, the Terps had no business losing, not unless they wanted their record in March to start drawing comparisons with the Boston Red Sox's record in October.

The Wolfpack was without starting power forward Damon Thornton. It missed 12 of its first 13 shots. And Tim Wells, the reserve who nearly made a three-pointer to force overtime, had scored only seven points all season.

The Terps might have collapsed under the weight of their history after blowing a 19-6 lead, but most of the players were unaware that it had been 16 years since Maryland reached the tournament final.

"We haven't really said anything about that," Morris said. "This year's team has been a lot different about saying things like that. We just go out there, play the games and try to win them. Whatever happens, happens."

Blissful in their ignorance, the Terps trailed by three points with under three minutes left. They committed 21 turnovers. They missed 13 free throws. But none of it mattered after Lonny Baxter scored seven points in the final 2: 46. None of it matters now that Maryland is in the final.

"You just have to realize what a great opportunity we have," Mardesich said. "Some guys who haven't been here don't realize it. I was just telling the team when we were starting to get down, "We've had some good teams in the past that haven't made it this far."

The Terps lost the final three straight seasons from 1972 to '74, concluding with their classic 103-100 overtime loss to North Carolina State. They also lost in both 1980 and '81, with their only championships coming in 1958 and '84.

Former coach Lefty Driesell once promised that if he won the ACC tournament, he would strap the trophy to the top of a Cadillac convertible and drive around North Carolina hooting and hollering for a month.

It took Driesell 16 years to win the title. Williams is in his 11th season. Maryland wasn't even allowed to play in the ACC tournament in his second year, when NCAA sanctions prevented the school from appearing on television.

Will Williams pull a Lefty if the Terps win today?

"I'll tell you what," he said. "If we win, I'll be very quiet and leave very quietly, go back to Maryland and be a very happy man for a while."

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