Terps reached crossroads, didn't take beaten path

February 22, 2007

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK-- -- If you haven't seen it, here's what the crossroads looks like: There's wall-to-wall carpeting and a giant school logo covering much of the floor. There's a flat-screen TV hanging on one wall and wooden lockers lining the other three. And there are photos of each member of the Maryland men's basketball team and 24-inch stools in front of each locker. This is where each player sat during halftime last night and considered the only two directions possible.

When the pivotal game against Florida State had reached its midpoint, the Terps entered the locker room as one team and a few minutes later exited as a different one.

There will be bigger games and maybe the meaning of last night's 73-55 win over the Seminoles will fade with time. But right now, it sure feels like the biggest win of the season, and that halftime gathering of a team lost and bewildered was a time for definition. It was a crossroads for the game and just maybe for the season.

You knew that whichever team came out for the final 20 minutes could be the one that ultimately dictated Maryland's fate - as a team bound for the NCAA tournament or one bound for that other tournament. And with these Terps, there was no way of knowing exactly which would emerge.

"I was hoping," coach Gary Williams said. "You never know."

Williams likes to say that every league game is important. And while they all carry the same weight in the standings, beating the Seminoles is the one that caps an impressive turnaround and should ultimately punch the Terps' ticket to the dance.

Just consider what it would've meant if the Terps lost last night? They'd need to win two of their final three to finish .500 in ACC play; it would've meant they'd have to rely on the NCAA tournament selection committee to get all tingly inside over the Terps' impressive RPI; and it would've meant the Terps surely would've had a fingernail feast on Selection Sunday.

But this win means something that the others hadn't. They've topped better foes and posted more impressive victories, but this one is all about the context.

Last night certainly looked like we were traveling down a well-worn path. The Terps entered with three straight wins - including two on the road and one against Duke - and frankly, no one would've been surprised if the momentum didn't make the bus trip back from Clemson. And that's exactly how it looked for a first half chock full of problems - three starters combining for just 23 minutes, a leading scorer who netted zero points and found himself cuffed to the bench for 12 full minutes by a pair of fouls.

But the second half started and it was like a different game, and the Terps were like a different team.

The horrors of the first half were somehow left behind. I'm not sure how that works or where it goes. Maybe it dripped from their heads, hung so low, and fell to the floor. Maybe they exited the locker room and quickly shut the door, locking the nightmare inside. Or most likely, maybe Williams found the right words to effectively kill the first 20 minutes.

The Terps came out with a 16-2 run to effectively put the game out of reach while halftime tourists were still searching for their seats. And the key was D.J. Strawberry, who opened the half with three straight field goals, including an electric dunk just 90 seconds into the half.

It was infectious, and the second-half superlatives negated the first-half despair. The freshmen point guards finished with a combined 15 assists and just three turnovers. Bambale Osby came off the bench and shot 6-for-8 from the field, finishing with 15 points. And Strawberry chipped in with 10 points.

They outscored the Seminoles 34-14 in the paint; the Terps reserves outscored the 'Noles' bench 22-0, and after a first half with zero points off the fast break, the Terps had 10 in the second half.

"We looked at ourselves [during halftime] and said that we didn't win the last three games playing the way we did in the first half," Osby said. "We didn't have the same effort in the first half, and we knew we had to bring it out."

The trick now is to keep bringing it out. And to realize that 20 minutes won't be enough from here on. This convoluted dance step - a few steps forward, a couple back - might work in January and February. But not in March.

We prematurely ruled them out because they lost five of their first seven conference games. And because they've now won five of their past seven, despite well-documented shortcomings, we cautiously rule them back in.

It's the same group, the same level of talent. But there's a different energy and a different understanding of what it takes to win the must-win games. They reached the crossroads and made the right turn.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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