Terps refuse to burst after long day of bubble scores

ACC tournament

March 10, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Greensboro, N.C.-- --Don't worry about what the other teams on the so-called NCAA tournament bubble are doing this week, Gary Williams had preached more than once. Take care of what you can control, your own play.

His Maryland players are nothing if not obedient. They looked and sounded focused as their ACC tournament opener approached, and last night at the Greensboro Coliseum, they controlled the game against Georgia Tech, to the tune of 82-64 - and with it, as much of their destiny as they could.

Clearly, they heard what the coach had been saying, not just leading up to the tournament, but since the final week of the regular season. Three straight wins to possibly save the season is the proof.

"You can say all the right things," Williams said afterward, "but if the players don't have the fortitude to get it done, it doesn't matter. In other words, you can't motivate guys who don't want to be motivated."

Winning this game, and applying the lessons learned in the two season-ending wins, was the only factor worth paying attention to. Too much danger lurked in front of the Terps for any of them to obsess over what was going on elsewhere, in this tournament or any other. Florida State made that obvious earlier in the day, when it let Wake Forest and its crowd from down the road swallow it up in the second half, and likely its NCAA hopes as well.

Maryland's position was even more fragile, No. 6 in a conference slated by many for just four berths, with two wins here being the consensus minimum requirement. So the Terps went out last night and squeezed the Yellow Jackets, harassed them all over the court, forced turnovers and bad shots and bad decisions. They jumped to an early lead, saw Georgia Tech even it up briefly, then pulled away. From the five-minute mark of the first half on, it was the Terps' game to lose.

Defensive intensity and smarter play had gotten them into contention at the end, and it laid the groundwork last night, too. This time, they added offense - not just the easy baskets they created with their pressure, but the hot hand of Mike Jones, who scored 13 of his 19 points in the first half, in explosive fashion - just as Williams had hoped he would ever since Chris McCray became an academic casualty.

The whole team's demeanor was exactly what was needed. There were going to be distractions, no one could deny, but no one could give in to them. Williams had suggested they don't sit around in their rooms before the late tipoff. "I'd rather have them walk around and enjoy themselves," he said.

Even the players admitted that watching games all day wouldn't have done them any good. "It's tough to do that; it's tough to try to know everything else that's going on," Jones had said. "We have a lot of people to keep track of."

The day's news wasn't very good. One of the first finals, from Cincinnati: Temple 68, sixth-ranked George Washington 53, opening the door for another team from the previously one-bid Atlantic 10.

Then, from midtown Manhattan: Syracuse 86, top-ranked Connecticut 84 in overtime, giving the Orange exactly what it needed to all but assure itself of a berth.

Pop ... pop ...

Televisions were being tuned in all over the coliseum; at one point, they were being flipped between the final seconds of Miami's comeback win over Clemson, and the final seconds of regulation of the Syracuse game. The Big East game in New York carried far more weight than the one going on down the hall.

As entitled as league officials have sounded in recent days, they all knew that everything had to fall just right to get even five in, much less six. Control what you can control. Later that afternoon, Florida State failed to do just that, against the ACC's last-place team. That leaves Florida State still with 19 wins, a 9-7 ACC mark and a win over Duke just over a week earlier - but also with an ugly blemish it no longer has the power to erase.

Said Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton: "All we can maintain is hope, hope that we've done enough in the regular season to get into the NCAA tournament. There's nothing else we can do besides that."

As the Terps rode out the long wait to play, the scores kept rolling in. Before they even got to the coliseum, Minnesota had beaten Michigan. As they stretched in a hallway, in came a Pacific-10 score: Arizona beat Stanford. At halftime, with the Terps up by 15, more updates: Cal was on its way to beating USC, and in the Mountain West - two bids at the most, supposedly - lowly Wyoming was beating No. 2 seed Air Force.

Five minutes into the second half of their own game, the Terps pushed their lead near 30. One win down, one to go. Take care of what you can control. Last night, it worked.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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

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