Maryland closes ranks, muddles rankings

January 19, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

COLLEGE PARK - It was a red sea of insanity - a good sign in an expensive building waiting for proof that it could deliver a meaningful home-court advantage.

Advantage delivered.

Yes, it was loud, and everyone inside Comcast Center yesterday knew exactly what was taking place - as if Maryland's second-half barrage against Duke wasn't enough evidence that everything in their world was sublime (again) and, just as important, everything in the world of college basketball was about to change.

With 5:14 left in the network TV/ACC showdown between the defending national champions and the No. 1-ranked team in the country, Duke's best, if not only, hope for a comeback had just fouled out.

Freshman sharpshooter J.J. Redick, who on Wednesday had torched Virginia for 34 points to keep the Blue Devils undefeated, walked dejectedly to the Duke bench and Terrapin Nation just exploded.

No comebacks tonight, gentlemen Dookies.

Better yet, no more separation between top-ranked Duke and everyone else in the ranks of Division I basketball - including Maryland.

Two minutes after Redick was gone, with still more than three minutes left in the game, the Terps' show reached a feverish pitch. They were pulling off an upset. They were establishing a turning point in this now very promising season.

Maryland senior guard Drew Nicholas was putting on an exhibition, getting assists and support from senior point guard Steve Blake and a kick-start from freshman playmaker Chris McCray. With a team-high 24 points, Nicholas showed why, after three years of an apprenticeship under 2002 Final Four MVP Juan Dixon, he is now the ACC's leading scorer.

On the visitors' bench, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski waved the figurative white towel. He pulled his starters and sent in a mop-up crew that everyone except Maryland coach Gary Williams saw as a sign of a brave new world in this season's march toward March Madness.

"Are you accusing me of running up the score on them?" Williams asked with a laugh after keeping his starters in the game down to the glorious end of the 87-72 victory.

"After my experience with Duke, I know that I just have to keep on yelling for 40 minutes," Williams said.

It is a beautiful thing, these ACC showdowns between Maryland and Duke - and yesterday's was particularly sensational. No wonder we put up with all the nonsense that surrounds big-time collegiate athletics. Every so often, we get the gift of a game that actually lives up to its billing and, better yet, its pedigree, making us swoon at the sight of very talented athletes playing for very good coaches.

You'd take this game over anything the NBA could throw at you, 365 days a year.

If Duke-Maryland is one of college basketball's best, most intense rivalries, it's only in the past few years since North Carolina has fallen and since Maryland has been able to ratchet its recruiting so that Williams can compete with Krzyzewski in these wondrously speed-of-light chess matches.

Yesterday, Williams was able to smile at the idea of where his program now sits.

"Duke forced us to get up to their level. They're the reason it's a great rivalry," Williams said.

Technically, what Maryland did yesterday was an upset, but we now have some serious doubts. Those doubts - about how much better Duke is than Maryland or many of the other Top 15 teams - started early in the second half when Maryland came out and absolutely pounded away at Duke, erasing a six-point deficit to take a lead it would never relinquish.

Credit for that surge goes to Maryland's 6-foot-10 senior forward Tahj Holden, a smart guy and wonderful three-point shooter whose gentle demeanor and natural game make him a reluctant visitor to the paint.

Not yesterday. Holden's drives and dishes and three blocked shots made him the vital part of a one-two inside punch with center Ryan Randle, whose double double was too much for Duke's freshman big men.

Turns out the Blue Devils were indeed vulnerable, so why is it when the coach of the best college basketball program in the country these past 15 years tells us his team is young and a work in progress, we don't believe him?

Poor, misunderstood Coach K. As his young team amassed its unbeaten string these past few weeks, prognosticators looked at him like he was trying to peddle snake oil. Doubt? From Duke? Last night, Krzyzewski got to tell it like it is - again.

"I know I have kind of a work in progress, but because we've won all of our games up until now, someone voted us No. 1. I've coached No. 1 teams and I know that's not where we are right now. I don't know who is because I don't watch all those teams," Krzyzewski said.

"I just take what they give me. I don't politic or anything. If someone votes me 28th, fine. I just want to be No. 1 with my wife, my daughters and my dogs. As long as I'm doing that, I'm in a good place on this Earth. The other stuff, the basketball, that takes care of itself in March."

That is a beautiful statement by the coach of the former No. 1 team, because as of right now, there is absolutely no telling what will happen in March.

For that, the world of college basketball should thank Williams and the Terrapins. The last of the unbeaten teams is now beaten.

"We had to win this game. This will let [this season's Maryland team] create its own identity. We might have taken a step forward today," Williams said.

It is something Maryland could have achieved only by beating who it beat.

"They say there's parity in college basketball, but there's no parity until everyone has a loss. Maybe now there's parity."

It was very good for Maryland. It's pretty good for everyone else, too. The real season has now begun.

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