Maryland's fate in its hands, which translates to its heart

February 23, 2004|By Mike Preston

DURHAM, N.C. - The difference between the University of Maryland getting a bid to the NCAA Division I basketball tournament or to the NIT has now boiled down to desire.

There is little else to factor into the equation.

The Terps can't shoot from the field, they can't shoot from the foul line, they can't handle the ball, and they can't get the ball inside. Even a once-suffocating defense has become suspect, especially in transition.

So after No. 3 Duke blew out Maryland, 86-63, before a crowd of 9,314 in the little sweat box known as Cameron Indoor Stadium yesterday, the Terps' season has come down to four remaining regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference games, including three at Comcast Center.

And desire.

"This is tough. You just try to keep your head up. That's the main thing, stay positive," said Maryland point guard John Gilchrist, who finished with 14 points and was one of the few Terps who showed up yesterday.

"If you look around the country, every program goes through this. Every program has a tough season. Everything is not gravy every year. This is the year we have to grind, dig deep, find some character on this team."

That's all that is left, especially after yesterday. Just about everyone knew Duke (22-3 overall, 11-2 ACC) was going to blow out Maryland (13-10, 4-8). The Blue Devils had lost two straight on the road at N.C. State and Wake Forest, and had a 39-game winning streak on the line at Cameron. The last team to defeat Duke here was Maryland.

But there was going to be no Cinderella story here yesterday, only a tough crowd that chanted about the Terps being on the bubble. Maryland hung tough for about 12 minutes, and then disappeared. You could see life leave the Terps in the last minute of the half. Heading into the locker room, they left the court with their heads hung, trailing 45-28 and without a clue as to how to stop Duke.

"We started off well, but had trouble staying with the pace," said Terps center Jamar Smith. "By halftime, the game was out of hand."

Repairing the Terps' fragile psyche will become the No. 1 job of coach Gary Williams heading into tomorrow night's home game against Clemson (10-14, 3-10). There is little else to work on.

Entering yesterday's game, the Terps were shooting 44 percent from the field and 61 percent from the foul line. They shot 37.3 and 51.9, respectively, against Duke. So unless the basketball gods give Rick Barry and Larry Bird a sip from the fountain of youth and put them in a Maryland uniform, it's safe to say this group will continue to shoot bricks the rest of the season.

Fundamentally, this team seemed to reach its peak weeks ago, which might be why Maryland has only won three of its past 10 games. The Terps had 23 turnovers yesterday, which Duke converted into 31 points.

Some of the turnovers could be attributed to fatigue. This is a young team, with a lot of the players not used to this many games in a season. But what was disturbing were some of the lazy passes and carelessness in handling the ball.

The Terps, particularly Smith and forward Travis Garrison, also have a hands problems. They can't catch. And if you can't catch passes in the paint, scoring chances get reduced. Maryland has trouble putting together sequences on offense in which it can work the ball around and throw four or five passes to find open players.

"It probably wasn't the best time to play Duke," said Williams, "but you can't pick and choose when you play somebody that has a good basketball team that got stung a little bit. Duke's losses certainly got their attention. In the first half, we didn't handle the ball well, had a lot of turnovers. We did get some opportunities, but we have put them down. We didn't make any shots.

"I'd say we've improved. We're not playing the bottom of Division I basketball here in the ACC; we're playing the best."

That's getting old. ACC or Big Ten, who cares? Just win against Clemson. Maryland is a team that hasn't put together a total team effort for quite a while. In a 75-64 loss to Georgia Tech on Thursday night, even Gilchrist, the team leader, played sluggishly, showing little fire.

That was disturbing. Another problem came with 16:42 left in the second half yesterday. Maryland, with the ball out of bounds, had one second remaining on the shot clock. Chris McCray took the pass near the top of the key, but instead of turning and shooting, he backed up and seemed to want to call a play.

McCray didn't play after that, and exchanged words on the sideline with Williams.

"Chris didn't go back in. It was a coach's decision. That's all I have to say about it," said Williams.

The Terps have only a short while to do some mental healing, but they're still in control. Besides Clemson, Maryland has Wake Forest (17-6, 7-5) at home on Saturday and Virginia (14-10, 4-9) on March 7.

If the Terps can win all three, they're probably in the NCAA tournament. If not, can you say NIT?

"This has been real frustrating for me because this is my last year," said Smith. "Everybody is playing real tough at home, so we need these wins to put us back into the standings. Physically, I think we're ready to play. Mentally, we've got to get into that mind-set of playing all game long. It's a mental thing for us."

Williams said: "You come to the ACC to play against the best teams and you have to suck it up sometimes. It's not always going to go smooth. Our whole focus is next week, where we play three out of the next four at home. We have to take care of business. This is our chance with the way the schedule falls, and we have to take advantage of when it's in our favor."

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