Fear the turtle

March 16, 2004

AT ONE POINT as the final seconds ticked down in Maryland's wondrous victory over Duke - and it was becoming clear that the young Terps would stun the basketball world by taking the ACC title for the first time since 1984 - a look of exhausted bliss finally flowed across coach Gary Williams' often tense game face, a moment of sweet savoring that he more than deserved.

Yes, a dominant Terrapins squad took the NCAA championship just two years ago. But in some ways, last weekend's achievement by an inconsistent team that until very recently had not even been certain of being selected for the Big Dance was even more astounding. Not even the 2002 Terps were Atlantic Coast Conference champs.

We've raised serious questions, even just recently, about the misplaced priorities of big-time college sports. At the same time, it was impossible not to be moved by the Terps' display of heart, grit under fire and, most of all, teamwork.

Three games in 42 hours. Rising to challenge after challenge, this previously immature team squeaked past three of Tobacco Road's four top-ranked schools - in a North Carolina arena, no less! Sunday's come-from-behind win over Duke was improbable enough, but Saturday's comeback over North Carolina State from a 19-point halftime deficit was, well, something miraculous.

It was a miracle evidently forged by a halftime chewing out by Mr. Williams, Maryland's coach for 15 years. The young squad - reliant on freshmen, sophomores, and just one senior - heard an angry appeal to live up to their talents and the best traditions of Maryland basketball. They stormed out for the second half, relentlessly applied a full-court press and took only eight minutes to wipe out that 19-point margin - shocking the Wolfpack.

After that, an NCAA tournament berth was no longer in doubt. And after dumping Duke, the Terps zoomed to a No. 4 seed - pegging them as one of the nation's 16 best teams. Said the head of the NCAA selection committee: "I'm not sure there's anyone playing better basketball right now than Maryland in the entire country."

What a testimonial to a still developing team that, at least for one memorable weekend in North Carolina, came into its own. This Thursday in Denver, as the Terps' NCAA quest begins, we're rooting for even more cause to fear the turtle.

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