In end, experience jump-starts victory

Ncaa Tournament

March 16, 2007|By DAVOD STEELE

BUFFALO, N.Y. — BUFFALO, N.Y.-- --That had to be the most deceptive 12-point victory a No. 4 seed has ever pulled off against a No. 13 seed in NCAA tournament history. Deceptive because it never looked like a game Maryland or Davidson could win by double digits, and deceptive because the difference between Maryland and Davidson is far, far smaller than the gap in the seedings.

So, after all the Davidson scoring spurts, the Maryland sloppiness, the Davidson lead that was at eight with 17 1/2 minutes to go and was at one with 10 minutes left, the crowd at HSBC Arena surging toward the underdogs trying to pull off the upset in the NCAA tournament's first game - why did Maryland end up pulling it out relatively comfortably?

"I guess their experience in playing so many great teams all year," said freshman Stephen Curry, very nearly the hero for Davidson and the only player on the court accorded a standing ovation, when he fouled out in the final seconds with a memorable 30 points in his tournament debut.

"We've played great teams in the So-Con [Southern Conference] and had some great wins, but it's a different situation for them," Curry said. "They've been at this level all year. They had more seniors and more experience on the floor than we do."

That's it. Not as much separating a contender in the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference from a one-bid conference champ as you'd think. Curry and his Davidson teammates, and coach Bob McKillop, could hold their own on any given day against a big-conference team, as they did yesterday, and likely would win a few. If this group stays together, they will win a tournament game before they're done.

But Maryland won, by that deceptive 82-70 score, because it won games against North Carolina and Duke down the stretch, during the seven-game winning streak, the same way. And winning games like that becomes ingrained. Poise and smarts improve through repetition. The Terps knew how to get out of jams like the one they were in yesterday better than Davidson knew how to hold on in the same circumstance.

Gary Williams said afterward that Davidson deserves credit for being more than a physically overmatched but "smart" team. In the same vein, this Maryland team deserves credit for winning games with its head more than it does. These Terps are going to have to start getting the benefit of the doubt.

If nothing else, this should be looked at not as a game they almost didn't win, but as a game in which they definitely didn't lose their cool.

"No, no," agreed D.J. Strawberry, sitting drained at his locker after going chin-to-chin with Curry all day as well as any defender in America could. "It really wasn't a big deal. There were 17 minutes left in the game. There was plenty of time to come back from eight points down.

"There wasn't much said. You can say anything you want, but we knew what we had to do," he said. "We had to play better defense, and we had to take better care of the ball. ... We just had to be the tougher team."

Those shortcomings at the start of the second half turned a one-point Terps lead - a surprise, because it seemed as if they trailed the whole half - into a 52-44 deficit courtesy of nine straight Davidson points, five by Curry, and four Maryland turnovers.

Players were already in foul trouble, and Williams was wringing everything out of his bench; there even was a Parrish Brown sighting at a critical stretch late in the first half - and fittingly for this game, he hit a big three-pointer.

Still, for certain, phones and e-mails were buzzing across the country about the shocker brewing in Buffalo. Yet it's as if the Terps players' pulses never even sped up.

The Wildcats' did - the lead would have been larger, closer to insurmountable, had they not blown three straight chances to score off those turnovers. With those reprieves, off the Terps went for eight straight points to tie it, five in a row by Bambale Osby. Mike Jones' breakaway dunk gave the Terps the lead again. Osby got them in front for good 2 1/2 minutes later.

The snowball started rolling downhill. Ekene Ibekwe played through his fouls and was the force inside that Davidson couldn't handle. Jones hit probably the biggest three-pointer of his career with 2:11 left to extend the lead to seven. It was nothing but Terps free throws and Davidson desperation after that.

Disaster was averted - truly, because it would have been a rotten way to end this roller-coaster season and the careers of the seniors who bailed it out.

"Yeah, I definitely was thinking about that," Jones said.

Davidson was good, but the Terps had handled better. When they sound and look as if they can beat any team in the country, a team like Davidson has to be included. Same for Butler, the Terps' second-round opponent tomorrow. Everybody's good, anybody can win, but teams that know how to win usually do over teams that, unfortunately, don't.

"I'm not surprised at all that we had a tough game," Williams said. "I didn't think at all that this was a 12-point game."

Give the Davidson players credit for playing above their seed. Give Maryland credit for beating them anyway - and for all it did in the past month to position itself to do it.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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