No victory, but nothing lost for Terps with effort

March 11, 2001|By John Eisenberg

ATLANTA - Don't start. Not today. Don't resort to the usual criticisms of the Maryland Terrapins for always losing when it matters most.

Yes, they did lose bitterly to Duke yesterday in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Another year, another disappointment. You want to run with that, go ahead.

But please know that this one was different, that the Terps lost while playing at a level only a few teams in the country can reach. They were resilient, resourceful, just flat-out tough in an 84-82 loss.

The game was so intense and competitive, of such high quality, that the loss should dash little of the March momentum the Terps have generated with six straight wins before yesterday.

Doubt it? You weren't among the record crowd of 40,083 that saw a game with a Final Four feel at the Georgia Dome. In the flesh, it was an instant classic. Yeah, another one of those.

"That was one of the best games I've ever been a part of in this tournament," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Just two teams going after it."

The Blue Devils' magnanimity in victory can be galling at times, but none of it rang hollow this time. They knew this win wasn't about them being smarter, Maryland lacking the pedigree or any of the convenient, little lessons that usually seem to surface between these teams. This time, the Blue Devils played to a dead heat with a team that was every bit their equal, and they were fortunate to win with one big play at the end. Period. No moral to the story.

Did you hear what Duke's Shane Battier said to Maryland's Juan Dixon after Dixon's desperate game-winner from 30 feet bounced off the rim at the buzzer?

"He told me that we were a great team and I was a great player, and he said, `See you in the Final Four,' " Dixon said.

A whole lot has to happen before that dream comes true, but if anything, the Terps may have improved their chances yesterday.

They scored the game's first 10 points, led by three at halftime and fell 14 down early in the second half, then spent the final 15 minutes pounding away from behind, finally regaining the lead with 2:18 to play. They often have wilted in the past after the inevitable 18-2 Duke run, which came just after halftime yesterday, but they fought back this time. They didn't give in to Duke's aura of superiority, as they often do.

"We just didn't waver at all," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "To a man, we thought we could come back. And we did."

They hit so many huge shots down the stretch that it almost became routine. Dixon hit a three-pointer to slice a six-point margin in half with 4:40 to go. Another Dixon three-pointer brought the Terps closer, then finally, Danny Miller hit a three-pointer to give the Terps the lead at 78-77. After Duke rebuilt a three-point lead heading into the final seconds, Steve Blake hit a three-pointer to tie the score with eight seconds left.

Talk about no fear.

Duke's Nate James beat the Terps to a rebound and tipped in the game-winner with 1.2 seconds left, a classic Duke moment. The Blue Devils win because they have players who do such things in such situations. It's not luck, despite what Maryland fans might believe. Please note that the Blue Devils have responded to center Carlos Boozer's injury by instantly reinventing themselves as a quicker, backcourt-driven team.

That the Terps even got another shot off after James' tip was borderline miraculous without any timeouts, but Dixon never ceases to amaze. He caught a 60-foot pass, collected himself, turned and launched a dangerous shot, all in little more than a heartbeat.

"What a warrior," Krzyzewski said. "I would love to coach Juan Dixon."

Besides Dixon, who scored 17 points, Lonny Baxter played well for the Terps with 15 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks, and Blake had 11 assists (but six turnovers). No less important were contributions off the bench from forwards Tahj Holden and Chris Wilcox, who combined for 14 points and four rebounds.

Wilcox, a freshman jumping jack, played just eight minutes, but as always, hinted at real play-making substance. Williams has limited his minutes this season, infuriating some fans. Maybe the coach had his reasons, but either way, it's time to unleash Wilcox with the NCAAs at hand. The kid can play.

Should the Terps have won? You could argue that. They shot 12.5 percent better than Duke and grabbed 21 more rebounds. Their 20 turnovers, six above their season average, leveled the playing field. Duke also (attention conspiracy theorists) attempted twice as many free throws.

Duke was ahead at the buzzer, but so formidable was Maryland's performance against a team ranked No. 3 in the nation that the Terps' locker room wasn't even gloomy after a loss that should have devastated.

"It's disappointing," Blake said, "but we know we have a great team, and we know we have the NCAAs ahead of us."

Said Krzyzewski: "Coming into the season, I thought Maryland was one of the four or five best teams in the country. And I think they are now. Whatever they did between then and now, they're now at the point where I thought they would be."

Tough. Dangerous. No one's idea of a good NCAA draw.

When you can say that with conviction after a loss to Duke in the ACC tournament, you know it's not a typical loss to Duke.

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