UM's seniors let legacy slip through their hands with mistakes, poor play

NCAA Tournament

March 18, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

BUFFALO, N.Y. --The Maryland seniors -- mainly D.J. Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe and Mike Jones -- took the loss upon themselves. That was appropriate. They carried the resurrection of their final collegiate season on their shoulders. Yesterday, the final chances to extend their season were in their hands -- and they let them slip away.

It's their class' legacy. They played well, they had their incandescent moments, but they left you wanting more, wondering why there wasn't more. With their significant accomplishments in four years, they will be remembered more for what they didn't do.

Like beat Butler -- not much of a lower seed, but still a lower seed -- and make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Like play their game instead of Butler's. Like grab a rebound when they were the bigger, stronger team. Like make a free throw at times when fouling was their opponent's best defense.

Gary Williams' face was drawn pretty tight afterward, as it should have been. In discussing late-game strategy -- deciding not to foul on Butler's last possession, but to defend, force a miss and get a rebound with time for a final shot --he made a basic error in judgment: He put expectations on one of the most unpredictable Maryland teams he's ever coached.

His players had the look every college player, except the national champs, has at the end. The looks on the seniors' faces, on the court and in the HSBC Arena locker room, trumped them all, especially the core of the class, the three starters.

"We didn't show up like we should have," Ibekwe said, trying to keep his head up and eyes level. "That's just keeping it real. When you know you should have beaten a team and advanced to the next round, you can't help but think about it."

He sighed, "I kind of put it on myself as a senior, not getting the job done."

Ibekwe had company. After the final buzzer sounded and the Butler players exploded off the bench and danced and hugged on the court, Jones came to a stop in the lane, turned, put his hands on his knees and dropped his gaze to the floor. The last inbounds pass, with 0.6 of a second left, had slipped through his fingers, rendering his excellent farewell performance, 21 points and five three-pointers, meaningless.

Later, Strawberry spoke with his head sunk to his chest. He played sick, and for much of the game he didn't play well. He had the primary task of guarding Butler's sniper, A.J. Graves, and Graves scored 19 points, including four of his team's 12 threes. The most devastating came when the score was 58-56 Butler; Graves had missed on a drive, spotted up in the corner when teammate Drew Streicher snagged the rebound, and buried a three with 2:11 left.

"They did what they were supposed to do," Strawberry said, his face blank but his voice gruff. "We knew they were gonna shoot threes, and they shot threes. We didn't defend the three-point line. That was the game."

Strawberry was one of the seniors who had said the day before how much it would mean for this class to reach a Sweet 16 and cap their careers the right way. They missed by a game as freshmen, after winning the ACC tournament, and were just getting back to the tournament again. They ended up right where they had started, short of their own expectations, in many ways.

"This is probably one of the worst feelings ever," said Strawberry, a big statement from someone who lost most of a season to a torn-up knee. "We know we're a better team than what we were today."

Maybe. They didn't show it, though.

Butler is the master of figuring out what it does well and doing it until the other team caves in. It still doesn't say a lot for the Terps, who during their seven-game, season-saving winning streak had been masters of bending opponents to their will and making them squirm about free throws and inbounds passes and whistles and pivotal rebounds in the final seconds.

The seniors had been the catalysts then; to use a cliche, they had risen to the occasion. They were on the other side of that yesterday.

It almost wasn't worth anyone's energy to gripe about the offensive foul called on Strawberry under the basket with 40.6 seconds left and the Terps down by two. It's as if it was their destiny in this game to be a half-second or half step late -- and at worst, it looked as if it could've, maybe, sort of been a no-call.

When Williams stares at the walls at 3 a.m. this summer, it won't be from the memory of that call. More likely it will be from the thought of eight missed free throws in a game decided by three points. Or the huge advantages in rebounds and blocked shots ("I can't remember a game where the other team had no blocked shots").

Or the offensive rebound Streicher fed to Graves, or the one 6-foot-1 guard and Towson transfer Mike Green gathered in the lane with 4.9 seconds left, or the strip of Strawberry's dribble by Crone going upcourt with 0.6 of a second to go.

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