This season, Terps seniors deliver a finale to remember

Commentary

March 04, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK-- --Now that's how a senior class is supposed to go out. That's what the final home game of your career is supposed to be like.

It's supposed to end on Senior Night. With network TV in town, the stands packed, the student section in full and profane roar and with the parents, grandparents and siblings wearing their corsages and wiping away tears. With yet another win, and with a glow of anticipation for Selection Sunday.

Not 2 1/2 weeks after Senior Night. Not on a late Saturday morning, in front of a sea of empty seats and the cameras of ESPN8 ("The Ocho"). Not in the NIT. Not against Manhattan. Not with the sparse crowd booing them off the floor at halftime. Not with a loss that made you question whether the team wanted to be there any more than the fans did.

But that's ancient history. Sort of. The seniors on this Maryland basketball team have done what you're supposed to do with history: learn from it and make sure you don't repeat it.

Thus, their final game at Comcast Center -- yesterday's 79-59 domination of N.C. State, blown wide-open in a clinical, exhilarating second half -- will be something they'll cherish, and the fans will cherish it, too.

The biggest reason for the warm feelings, of course, is that this time, after the ACC tournament, they'll finish on a nice, cold, distant, neutral court, with that beautiful, limited regional CBS coverage.

"I'm more happy that this is my last game," D.J. Strawberry said, "and I don't have to come back here and play an NIT game. I'm just excited we don't have to come back here, and we don't have to go through what we went through the last couple of years."

The core of the senior class -- Strawberry, Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe -- used last season's finish as fuel, even though it didn't really catch fire until this seven-game winning streak they'll ride into St. Petersburg, Fla., this week. Still, they started stoking that fire right in the Comcast Center locker room 50 weeks ago, after that embarrassment against Manhattan, when what was left of that senior class was making its farewell speeches and passing the reins a few lockers down to the frustrated then-juniors.

"I just knew that in the next couple of months, really the blink of an eye, it was gonna be my senior year," Jones said. "And there were certain things in terms of what was done last year [that] I didn't want to be done this year."

Ah, what was left of that previous senior class. Not to speak ill of the seniors who made it to the end, Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison -- although they won't exactly be remembered for their heady, unselfish play and mature leadership at the close of their careers. Let's just say none of last year's seniors inspired each other to shave their initials and jersey numbers into their hair, as Strawberry and Ibekwe did, one of the many little recent testaments to team chemistry.

But at least they did make it to Senior Night. Not so for John Gilchrist and Chris McCray. If nothing else, this group got to the finish line intact, and with no arrests, no charges, no academic failures, no feuds with teammates, coaches or Gary Williams, no early departures by "mutual agreement."

Williams didn't have reason to speak of any of the six seniors -- including Will Bowers, Parrish Brown and the subject of the late-game fan chanting, walk-on Gini Chukura -- through gritted teeth. He had no reason to drag a seldom-used senior to the post-game interviews, the way he did with poor Mike Grinnon two years ago, after the first-day ACC tournament loss to Clemson at Verizon Center, making an awkward point about the underachievement of the rest of the players.

The bar wasn't set all that high. These seniors cleared it, and then some.

"The seniors have been through a lot," said Jones, serenaded with one final round of "Who" on his way to a game-high 21 points. (Fitting, wasn't it, that the leading scorers were Jones, Strawberry with 16 and Ibekwe with 14.) "We realized what we wanted and what we didn't want."

Among the things they didn't want was that negative legacy, as the class that wasted the goodwill of 2002, the one that would drive Williams' harshest critics to the forefront and give them all the ammunition they needed.

Now they have a completely different legacy: the team that came back from the dead, that rattled off seven in a row to turn a third straight miserable season into a triumph and prove that the wall the program supposedly had hit was actually just a speed bump.

"This run is everything," Ibekwe said, repeating it and punctuating it with one fist smacking against the other palm. "This is what made us. This run is what the difference is from the last two years."

The run was the payoff for reliving the end of last season. "I think about our last game at Greensboro," he said, recalling the ACC quarterfinal shellacking by Boston College. "I think about our NIT home game. I think about Selection Sunday, when our name wasn't called."

And now?

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