UM searches for answers in season of `what-if'

Close loss raises more questions for Terps

February 28, 2005|By David Steele

COLLEGE PARK - If only last night's game at Comcast Center could be examined in a vacuum. If only it could be viewed by Maryland's closest followers as the rest of the nation saw it, as a two-point loss at home to the No. 2 team in the country, on a pair of phenomenal plays by a pair of likely All-Americans and future NBA first-round picks. There would be no doubt about the Terps' worthiness as an NCAA team.

Most of the Maryland players don't see it that way, though, and their coach certainly doesn't. Any pleasure derived from showing up against North Carolina was diluted by an obvious thought, one that Gary Williams voiced in a nearly empty locker room last night: "Well, then what about Clemson, then?"

It was the recollection of that and the other dog days of Maryland's season that made Williams offer an odd reaction to the loss: He briefly looked past the critical regular-season finale at Virginia Tech, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and the postseason and right into next season.

"We get everybody back, and we can be a very good basketball team as time goes by," he said, "but it's going to take a lot of work. We have a lot of habits that we got into this year, in terms of loose balls and things like that, that aren't necessarily a look that we like with our program here.

"In the second half [yesterday], if we play like that, we can play with anybody in the country. But you have to do it for 40 minutes every game. Close isn't good enough this time of year."

He made it clear later that he wasn't writing off the rest of this season or making a concession speech. On the other hand, he couldn't hide his exasperation all that well. This is destined to go down in Maryland history as the season of what-if.

And this game will be Exhibit A. Did anyone else in the building laugh when, during a timeout with 2:41 left and Carolina up 80-75, the pep band played the Ohio Players' classic "Love Rollercoaster" - and when, barely a minute later, the Terps took their first lead since the first half? Or when they lost the lead on the very next possession on Jawad Williams' three-pointer, never to get it back?

So many sequences where one rebound, one loose ball, one defensive rotation, one less-rushed shot would have meant another nightmare for arena security and campus police. If somebody had picked up Raymond Felton in the lane on Carolina's last possession. If the Terps hadn't come out of a timeout with 7:14 left and down by only four and turned the ball over on four straight possessions.

If John Gilchrist, apparently intent on engraving his initials on the blood vessel popping out of Gary Williams' head, hadn't rushed a shot at the end of the first half with the Terps down by eight, and if North Carolina hadn't turned it into a dunk at the other end just before the buzzer, completing at least a four-point swing in the game decided by two points.

If Chris McCray, Maryland's only reliable offensive player in the first half, had gotten a few more touches in the first 10 minutes of the second half. If Mike Jones and James Gist had gotten more significant minutes in the first. If somebody could have put a body on Sean May more often. If a few players could have come up with a few of those loose balls Williams was talking about, instead of the likes of Felton, Jackie Manuel and David Noel getting to them.

If, if, if.

To their credit, at least a few of the Terps understand it all.

"We've had a rocky season," McCray said, "and it all comes down to us. We put ourselves in this situation, and sometimes we don't come out there and play the way we're supposed to. If we come out and play the way we did in the second half [against North Carolina], then we'll be a great team."

There's that word again, if. Even as confident as this game should have made the Terps as they prepare for the trip to Blacksburg, it wasn't enough to make anyone certain of which team will take the floor Saturday, no matter how much of their season hinges on the result.

"We're just going to play hard," McCray said. "We're going to come ready to play, because we have to."

That's when Maryland does play at its best, when it has to. It's one of the lessons everyone thought the Terps had learned last season in their exhilarating ride through March. Instead, they're back on the ride, except it's not as exhilarating this time. More like infuriating.

The only hope left? That lightning might strike twice on the same campus in back-to-back seasons.

And the only hope for that happening? "You don't go through a game like this without learning," Williams said. "If it makes us a little better, it may put us over the top."

Next for Maryland

Matchup: Maryland (16-10, 7-8) vs. Virginia Tech (14-11, 7-7)

Site: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, Va.

When: Saturday, 4:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

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