Finishing on a down note can't hide upside for UM

April 02, 2001|By Mike Preston

MINNEAPOLIS - Basketball at the University of Maryland should not be ending, but just beginning.

Maryland fans may not find consolation in blowing a 22-point, first-half lead and then losing to Duke, 95-84, in a national semifinal Saturday night at the Metrodome, but maybe a reality check is needed.

Take a deep breath. Hold it. Exhale. Drink a little water and then remember that Maryland never developed into the UCLA of the East that Lefty Driesell once promised.

Now, keep enjoying the ride.

The Terps should capitalize on the recognition by recruiting their best class ever, which would ensure the most talented team in coach Gary Williams' 12-year history will only get better.

A Final Four appearance shouldn't come every 60 or so years.

"I think our team this year proved some things to our university, to our state, where we can be as a basketball program, and we're going to go from there," said Williams.

"We always hear about some other schools being model programs that we should look at," said Williams. "Well, hopefully, now our program is at a point, both in terms of how good we are, in terms of what we do both on and off the court, that people feel that way about the University of Maryland."

It was a season of great accomplishments, because not many believed the preseason hype about the Terps being a Final Four team. Don't lie. The Terps had a history of meltdowns in the opening and Sweet 16 rounds of the tournament.

Same old Ravens; same old Terps. You remember those sayings?

The Terps had a relatively easy road here with tournament games against George Mason, Georgia State and Georgetown before blowing out a legitimate contender, Stanford, 87-73, in the regional championship, but that was beyond their control.

When a team and a coach meet the expected goal - advancing past the Sweet 16 was the consensus - then exceed it, there are no complaints.

Maryland is nearly guaranteed a final ranking in the top four.

Critics will point out that Maryland played Duke three other times before Saturday night's game, with the Terps winning one, and that all three games were decided by a total of 15 points.

So how can the Terps blow a 22-point lead and lose by 11?

A lot of people will blame Gary Williams. Me, I point a finger at the other Williams, Duke guard Jason. And Blue Devils forward Shane Battier. Duke has two All-Americans in its starting five. The Terps have none.

Great players impose their wills in big games, and Battier and Williams wouldn't let Duke lose. They dominated the second half of the game. Williams scored 19 of his 23 in the second half, and Battier finished with 25, 15 in the second. Duke also got some quality minutes from its reserves, a strength it didn't have early in the season.

And, of course, there was the poor officiating. Nothing new here. Maryland center Lonny Baxter, reserve Tahj Holden and forward Terence Morris drew fouls early and were forced to play tentatively in the paint, which is part of the reason Williams and Battier were fearless driving to the basket in the second half. The early fouls also ruined Gary Williams' rotation of players.

Questionable calls were too numerous to discuss.

Did the officiating cause Maryland to lose?

No, Duke was just a better team and would have won anyway.

Maryland didn't help itself with guard Juan Dixon scoring only three of 19 points in the second half and Baxter finishing with just 10. Terps point guard Steve Blake never gained control of the tempo even with a big lead, a must for a team in the Final Four (see Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin and Arizona's Mike Bibby).

But the inexperience is also what you like about this Maryland team. The Terps still have so much potential. Blake, Holden and reserve point guard Drew Nicholas are sophomores, and Baxter, Dixon, Byron Mouton and Danny Miller are juniors. Freshman Chris Wilcox is going to be a dominating player.

They lost to a Duke program that has been to the Final Four nine times in the past 16 years, a Duke program that has won national championships and created a mystique. The Blue Devils get eight points a night just from Krzyzewski stepping on the floor.

But Maryland players have their own experiences to build on now. The Terps had their hearts stolen during midseason when they lost five of six, but found the beat again by winning 10 of their last 12 games. They'll be able to draw off that again next year.

They have Final Four experience now and a new arena set to open for the 2002-03 season. Gary Williams seems to be wiser, and didn't burn out his players from mental fatigue by the end of the season.

That's a first.

This should be a great recruiting class, one that Williams will be judged on down the road.

Maryland is a good place to be right now. Alumni are excited about the football and basketball programs, which might mean more donations. The positives outweigh the negatives.

The loss to Duke doesn't have to be the end, but should serve as a beginning.

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