Growing UM gets glimpse of the heights

Ncaa Tournament

March 21, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

DENVER - As Maryland players filed out of the Pepsi Center last night, some of them left with their heads down. Forward Travis Garrison tried not to cry, but teammate D.J. Strawberry couldn't hold back the tears.

Maryland's 2003-04 season was played out in microcosm last night in the Terps' 72-70 loss to Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The Terps struggled early, and rallied late, but not enough to catch the tired Orangemen. Maryland had gotten a lot of fans excited during the past three weeks with several comeback victories and an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, but reality set in last night.

Maryland is a team that should be ranked no lower than No. 30, and no higher than 20. And for a team that has five freshmen and four sophomores on the roster, that's not too bad. Maryland coach Gary Williams got as much out of this team as possible this season, a team that lacked a bona fide leader and any legitimate scorers at the beginning of the season.

Just think about it: Maryland got into the NCAA tournament with Jamar Smith as the starting center and Nik Caner-Medley at forward.

What went wrong last night?

It was a recurring problem all season. Maryland put itself in a hole early. The Terps shot 25.9 percent from the field yesterday in the first half because they had problems with the Syracuse zone. They were 2-for-9 from three-point range as Syracuse built a 32-22 advantage at the half. They had six players in the first half commit two fouls each, and Maryland had 11 turnovers, good for eight Syracuse points.

What went right?

In the second half, Maryland shot 52 percent from the field, and had only six turnovers. It turned up the defensive pressure a little and kept pounding away inside with Smith and Travis Garrison, each of whom finished with 16 points.

And how could any Maryland comeback attempt not include heart? Maryland was down by 16 with 13 minutes left in the game, and by 13 with about eight minutes remaining. The Terps cut it to 71-70 with eight seconds left in the game on Strawberry's layup, and Strawberry had two shots that he missed in the remaining time, the last one of about 6 feet on a rebound of his 15-footer.

As Strawberry's last shot sailed way off mark, it completed a game in which Maryland got hot in the second half the same way the Terps got hot near the end of the season.

But coming into this tournament, everyone knew Maryland was a hot-and-cold outfit. Sure, the Terps played extremely well in winning their first ACC tournament in 20 years a week ago, but they also ran into an overconfident Wake Forest, an injury-riddled North Carolina State and a Duke team that had blown them out in Durham, N.C., only three weeks before.

No one really knew what to expect from the Terps in this tournament. Could they continue their roll, or would they roll over? They came within a field goal of possibly reaching the Sweet 16.

"Our team displayed this year the type of courage you saw in the second half," said Williams. "We made some mistakes in the first half, didn't play our game. That was typical of us all year, but we got better in the second half and became a good team in the ACC tournament.

"If anything characterizes this team, it's they kept coming back, and never quit," said Williams. "They may have come back more than any team I've ever had. I'm disappointed now, but a week from now, I'll feel good about this team, the toughness we showed despite the inexperience."

This was a limited Maryland team, and Syracuse was not a good matchup. The Orangemen's forte is to play zone, even for an entire game, which few college teams play. It was the perfect scheme for Maryland, which has lacked a good, consistent outside shooter all season.

The Terps also don't have any dominant big men, especially anyone the quality of Syracuse's Hakim Warrick. He scorched the Terps for 26 points while playing 40 minutes. The Terps tried Garrison on him, and Smith, and Strawberry.

Nothing worked.

Maybe Ekene Ibekwe, a freshman, might be in Warrick's class one day, but that's down the road a year or two.

What we saw last night was a Maryland team still in development, a team with too many one-dimensional players. This was also a Maryland team that came out timid in these two postseason games.

Sophomore point guard John Gilchrist had carried the Terps through the previous five games, but the fatigue and altitude seemed to wear him down last night. Gilchrist was 3-for-8 from the field and finished with only seven points. He fouled out with 29 seconds left, but never seemed to have the energy to take over this game. He passed on open jump shots. With 4:52 remaining, he was breathing hard.

Despite all the problems, though, Maryland hung around in the game and almost pulled out the win. The Orangemen did the Terps some favors by choking on foul shots down the stretch (missing four of their last 10) and getting away from their offense by trying to run time off the clock late in the game.

But not many can complain about Maryland's season. The Terps advanced to the NCAA tournament and gained invaluable experience. They have some individual stuff they need to work on like forward Mike Jones working on his defense, forward Hassan Fofana getting into the weight room, Strawberry and Ibekwe working on their shooting touches, Garrison being more of consistent scoring threat from outside and Caner-Medley finding anything he can do well.

With another good recruiting class and college basketball in the same state as the NFL (parity), the Terps should be serious contenders for the next two or three years.

As of last night, a young Maryland team took the defending national champions to the brink.

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