Loss closes glorious Terps' chapter

5 seniors take with them last title remnants, leave freshmen, sophs for '04

Ncaa Tournament

March 30, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - The Maryland Terrapins walked one tightrope too many while defending their crown, and when point guard Steve Blake wound up a bad night and a memorable career by missing a potential game-winning three-point shot, the Terps said goodbye to more than just a season.

With its 60-58 loss to Michigan State on Friday in the South Regional semifinals at the Alamodome, Maryland not only failed in its bid to repeat as NCAA champions. The Terps also closed the book on an era.

One year after seniors Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton left the program after bringing home the Sears Trophy, the Terps are losing the rest of the core that helped put them in back-to-back Final Fours. Five seniors - Blake, guards Drew Nicholas and Calvin McCall, forward Tahj Holden and center Ryan Randle - are done.

And in one huge sweep, the Terps will be transformed from one of the college game's most experienced units to one of the youngest in the nation. Next year, nine of Maryland's players will be either freshmen or sophomores. Center Jamar Smith, the Allegany College transfer, will be the team's lone senior as a second-year player.

Blake, Nicholas and Holden led a senior class that recorded 103 victories, a school record. The seniors also leave with a 13-3 record in four NCAA tournaments.

"You always want to go out on top, especially when you're seniors," said Holden, who was in tears as he left the court for the last time as a collegiate player, with the arm of assistant coach Jimmy Patsos wrapped around him.

"It's kind of hard to swallow. It's kind of hard to realize it's all over. You've got to look at the big picture at times and realize we had a pretty good run this year. At least we went down fighting."

Which is what the Terps (21-10) did often throughout a year in which they lacked the talent, balance and consistency that marked last year's 32-4 squad. The Terps were only good enough to string together two winning streaks of five games. They also were resilient enough to avoid three-game losing streaks on three occasions.

In numerous losses, such as their regular-season road games against Duke and Wake Forest, the Terps trailed by double digits in the second half, then used their pressure defense to spark strong comebacks that fell short.

In one of Maryland's biggest victories, the Terps twice erased double-digit, second-half deficits before a last-second shot by Nicholas beat North Carolina State, 68-65, in Raleigh on March 2. Nicholas topped that with a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot to lift the sixth-seeded Terps past No. 11 seed UNC-Wilmington, 75-73, in a first-round scare.

"You know what I liked about this team? We had our ups and downs. We weren't a machine like we were last year. But the character of this team was when we lost, we came back," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "There were a lot of situations where, if we had to bounce back or else the season was over and we never would have made the NCAAs, we were always tough enough to come back."

The Terps nearly pulled off another stunning turnaround Friday, on a night when so much went wrong - beginning with an offense that produced its second-lowest output of the season. The Terps shot a season-low 12.5 percent from three-point range and had a season-low eight assists with 15 turnovers.

Strangely, Maryland lacked a sense of urgency early, as youthful Michigan State used its size, depth and defense to gain the upper hand and hold the lead for 36 minutes. Spartans coach Tom Izzo threw man-to-man and matchup zone looks at the Terps, who lacked patience and composure, missed 12 of their first 14 shots, and got bullied at times on the perimeter by Michigan State.

The Spartans set the tone by taking a 29-24 halftime lead. Michigan State, which prefers a plodding, low-scoring pace, walked the ball up the floor when it wanted, worked the shot clock sharply, picked opportune times to run its fast break and buckled down defensively on Maryland's inconsistent frontcourt. The Terps rarely had any control of the tempo.

Randle could not capitalize on his outstanding opening tournament weekend and finished with six points and four turnovers on 2-for-10 shooting. Holden finished a 6-for-23 tournament by scoring eight points to go with nine rebounds and three turnovers.

Nine minutes into the contest, with the Terps trailing 14-8 and searching for some offense, Maryland absorbed a major blow when freshman forward Nik Caner-Medley went down with a dislocated left ankle.

Caner-Medley was helped off the floor, then taken to Christus Santa Rosa Hospital, where his ankle was reset and placed in a cast. He will be on crutches for four to six weeks, before beginning rehabilitation. No surgery will be required.

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