Rallying Terps go out with champs' roar, not whimper

March 29, 2003

SAN ANTONIO - What did we really know about the Maryland Terrapins? Bet you thought we had seen it all. The good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between.

Turns out we have not seen everything yet. Not by a long shot. Or a short shot. Or a terrible shot or a blown breakaway layup - all things we saw from the Terrapins last night.

Michigan State played a part in making the Terps look flawed and flustered in the 60-58 loss. Sweet 16 wasn't sweet at all, but that doesn't mean it was completely sour.

It might get passed along that these Terps blew their last chance to prove those early-season pollsters wrong. They were the defending champs, and they would be until someone took it away.

Well, last night, it was time. But get this straight: The Terps were down and out and absolutely buried under the rugby-like defense of the Big Ten brutes from Michigan State. A 14-point deficit and a sense of futility engulfed them. Still, they finished strong, with a final flurry of steals and blocks and jams and blocks; playing the champion's part, again.

"We had a chance to win that game and with seven minutes left, I didn't think we had a chance. That says something," said Gary Williams.

The coach was choked up. He knew what he was letting go of last night in the aftermath of this NCAA loss. This was a special group; the defending champs who had found the heart and the will in the face of defeat to come back, however briefly.

"I didn't want anyone to be able to criticize them because, as a group, they are beyond criticism, on and off the court. And in college athletics these days, that's saying something," Williams said.

It came down to the final shot, after the Spartans went ahead 60-58 on a bank shot from freshman center Paul Davis. With four seconds left, guess whose hands the ball was in? Steve Blake's hands, that's who.

What do we know about Steve Blake?

That even his own coach must call him an imperfect player in order to then make the point about how special Blake really is?

That by not being the best point guard ever to play Division I basketball Blake still commands respect and admiration for the consistent way in which he has made the Terrapins a better team every time he took the floor?

Turns out that even in his final minutes in a Maryland uniform, Blake had things to show us. Good, bad, ugly, but in the end, a champion and consummate collegiate star.

"I think when Steve missed that open layup, that shook us up. Everyone was thinking `What the hell is going on?' That's when we got our intensity back," Williams said.

How fitting that Blake, and not John Gilchrist, who was supposed to get the ball, had to sprint that final time up the court. Blake was, after all, the senior point guard upon whose back and from whose decisions great things have happened to Maryland basketball the past four years.

He is the point guard who isn't coveted by any of the pro scouts but who, by wont of his will and competitive spirit, proved time and again that college basketball belongs to the seniors, the program players, the guys who come and don't want to leave.

"Steve thought he had a good shot. He had a good look. We've been on a little run with making shots like that. It's great when you win like that, but it's worse when you lose, especially in the NCAA because it's so final," Williams said.

Indeed, Blake's final collegiate shot arced high up into the Alamodome air and fell, hitting the back of the rim as the red light behind the basket flashed, the horn blew, the Spartans cheered. Blake clapped his hands together, looked up at the basket as if to size up the trajectory again, as if to make sure, given the chance, he wouldn't miss next time.

But there won't be a next time.

Suddenly, April 1, 2002 seems very far in the rearview mirror.

Suddenly, the final measure of the Maryland team that came to play after the 2002 team had secured the Terrapins' first NCAA national championship can be taken.

As long as this year's version of the Terrapins was alive in March, the Terps could still hold up with pride their reign as kings of college hoops. Here, come and take what's ours. It was this kind of pride and this kind of feeling that kept the Terps alive through two rounds of these NCAA proceedings.

Now, it's no more. Michigan State made sure of that last night. The Terps will prefer to forget, but they shouldn't.

"When you have good guys like this, you don't get tired during the season," Williams said.

"You might get a little physically tired, but emotionally, you look forward to going to practice, someone will make a joke. These guys were as good as anybody who ever came to Maryland."

The Terps won the first one on a glorious Hail Mary. Thank you, Drew Nicholas. We won't forget.

They won the second one executing a nearly flawless first half before having to clamp down and fend off a surging Xavier.

Last night, the Maryland Terrapins tried to find another way to advance in their improbable tournament run, but everything that could go wrong did - an uneasy tone set right away.

For instance, guard Calvin McCall got the call to start - a nice gesture on Williams' part to honor the senior. But not long after Nik Caner-Medley checked in for McCall, the freshman from Maine rolled his left ankle coming down on a rebound attempt. He clutched his huge foot in agony, a dislocated ankle about to be diagnosed.

Maybe the Terps should feel slightly relieved. The Spartans go on to face No. 1 Texas down here just 80 miles from the Longhorns' Austin home. Goodness gracious how tough it would have been for the defending champs to hold up against the deep, talented, strong Longhorns. The difference between last year's best team in college basketball and one of the best this year has been established.

But in the end, with a furious finish, with some fight, the defending champs did themselves proud.

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