In 1 week, Terps suddenly look like legit dance partner

March 06, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Charlottesville, Va.-- --They ruined University Hall's farewell, but saved their own season. So Maryland senior Nik Caner-Medley can be forgiven somewhat for reacting to the final buzzer of yesterday's regular-season finale by racing toward the Virginia student section, popping his jersey, shouting and gesturing.

And the students can more or less be forgiven for hurling invectives, ice and at least one orange back at him.

"I just enjoyed the moment," Caner-Medley kept saying in the locker room. Everyone in the Terps' locker room was enjoying the moment, largely because there had been so few to enjoy lately.

But they've had a couple in the past week, in yesterday's 71-70 win over Virginia, and four days earlier at home against Miami, with their postseason lives in the balance both times. They gave themselves a lot to celebrate, even gloat about.

Ask Gary Williams why his team should make it back to the NCAA tournament, and he'll talk about history, how many .500 teams from the conference have made it before, strength of schedule and the like. But there's something less tangible involved.

For the first time in more than a month - since a January win at Georgia Tech the day after losing Chris McCray, the last time they had won on the road - the Terps look like they belong at the dance. For the past week, they looked like one of the best 65 teams in America. If nothing else, they're among the 65 toughest and most resilient.

Remember, Virginia was fighting for something, too, and it had the nostalgia of the day and the emotion of the crowd on its side - including the sight of Ralph Sampson inviting everyone he'd ever met on campus down on the court at the halftime ceremony. Maryland overcame it, then buckled under it, then overcame it again.

"That's as well as we've prepared on the road this year. We did a great job," Williams acknowledged.

There was more at play yesterday. If the explosion of exuberance is any indication, the Terps have more confidence than they can contain. Nothing less could have gotten them out of the jams they got themselves into Wednesday night against the Hurricanes and, worse, yesterday in the second half against the Cavaliers.

For 12 minutes in the second half, Virginia ran, shot and muscled the Terps out of that funky '60s relic of a building - from the time Maryland took its first 18-point lead some four minutes into the half until less than four minutes remained, by which time Virginia had erased it.

Yet while they were building that lead, the Terps acted as if they didn't care about the emotion of the crowd, nor about Virginia's quick, sharp-shooting guards, the kind that has given them nightmares all season.

And in the final minutes, the Terps didn't care that they had blown that big lead, that they had let J.R. Reynolds drop 19 second-half points on them, that they had let the Cavs survive leading scorer Sean Singletary being on the bench with four fouls most of the half, or that they were crumbling on the road again.

They had to play the defense of their lives, and they did. They turned their season-long weakness into a strength, just as they had in keeping Miami from getting off a good shot at the end on Wednesday. At the end yesterday, they wouldn't even let Virginia get the ball inbounds.

"We all just came together. It was just a team effort," said D.J. Strawberry, who, as usual, was in the middle of most of the big defensive stands the Terps made in both games. He wasn't exaggerating about it involving everybody, because Williams threw every combination of backcourt and frontcourt he could think of out at Virginia in the final minutes.

It's the way the Terps always had to win after losing their leading scorer, and they almost figured it out too late. But they have figured it out. Now, it's starting to feel like 2004, Caner-Medley was bold enough to say.

"It reminds me of my sophomore year a lot, almost exactly the same," he said, referring to the sprint from a 5-9 conference record to two season-ending wins, a sweep through the ACC tournament - yup, in Greensboro, just as it will be later this week - and into the NCAAs.

And it looks nothing like the fold-up of last season that led to a sad Selection Sunday. It looked too similar a week ago today, but the dancing and prancing and orange-dodging yesterday didn't reflect a team with the NIT on its mind.

"It felt great. Everybody was doubting us, saying we'd never get to 8-8," Strawberry said.

He wasn't exaggerating that, either. Williams picked through a handful of reasons why this team turned it around when it had to, and eventually settled on this: "A lot of it is just believing in yourself."

It looks as if the Terps have that down pat.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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