Playing the game as if it's his last

March 12, 2009|By RICK MAESE

ATLANTA - There's a reason Greivis Vasquez will take the court at the Georgia Dome tonight determined to scratch, claw and sweat his way through 40 minutes.

There's a reason they'll have to drag him off the hardwood if the scoreboard isn't tilting in Maryland's favor when the final buzzer sounds.

There's a reason he vows to play tonight's game against North Carolina State as though it's the last time he'll ever wear a Maryland jersey.

That reason? "It could be," Vasquez said yesterday.

The Terps' junior guard says he'll test the NBA draft waters at season's end, though he's also holding out the option of returning to Maryland for a senior season.

In the back of his mind this week, he knows this could be his final Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, which he says only provides extra motivation as the Terps make a final desperate push for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

"That's the way I approach it: It could be my last game," he said. "Or it could not be. You never know. You never know what could happen."

There will be plenty more on that topic as soon as the Terps' season officially ends. But one thing I already know: There's one team that's especially eager to finish off Vasquez's college career. That team, in fact, shares a court with Maryland tonight.

N.C. State enters its opening-round game against the Terps with a sharp memory and bad blood. Not everyone has forgiven Vasquez for draining that meaningless three-pointer as time expired 1 1/2 weeks ago. Maryland was leading the Wolfpack by eight points at the time.

"It's still in the back of my head," Wolfpack senior Courtney Fells said. "I definitely didn't like that. I'm going to go out there and I'll be aggressive against him."

The goal here isn't to dredge up ancient history but to provide context. As it is, the state of North Carolina is convinced Vasquez is the cockiest player to come out of College Park. Though that might be true, Vasquez finally explained yesterday what prompted that late three-pointer.

N.C. State fans "were talking about me being an immigrant and [having] a green card and stuff like that," he said. Although Vasquez said he later recognized the fans were trying to be funny, "at the moment I thought it was racist."

That late shot, though foolish, is understandable. Vasquez insisted he wasn't padding his statistics; he was just trying to send Wolfpack fans home with a message.

Unfortunately, he sent N.C. State players home with a different message. They enter tonight's game feeling disrespected and determined to put Vasquez and the Terps in their place.

Vasquez's style, his mouth and his antics have made him a target for fans everywhere he goes. Maryland coach Gary Williams said he heard the taunts in Raleigh and thought they crossed a line.

"There's a couple of idiots everywhere you go," Williams said. "That unfortunately happens.

"To say N.C. State fans are all like that isn't true," he said. "That's one or two people who say things like that. I'm sure that's happened every place in the ACC over a period of time."

He's right. The level of discourse - the chanting and taunting, from College Park to Cameron Indoor Arena - can be disgusting, foul and offensive. And with the possible exceptions of Duke's Jon Scheyer and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, Vasquez hears it as much as anyone in the ACC.

Usually, he handles it better. In fact, it typically serves as fuel. Against the Wolfpack, he heard the jeers get louder and dirtier as the game progressed. He poured in 21 of his 33 points in the second half.

"I tell our fans when Tyler Hansbrough went to our place, 'Please don't say nothing to him,' " Vasquez said. "He's the best player. If you mess with him, he's going to get angry and then he's going to go off.

"Playing for the opposite team, they don't get that," Vasquez said. "They say all the stuff about me; they're just going to get me fired up and get me motivated to kill them."

It's not hard to see why Williams and Vasquez share such mutual admiration. They embody so many of the same qualities and express themselves in such similar ways. It's why when Vasquez has faced criticism, Williams has defended him loudly. And as Williams has seen his reputation raked over hot coals, Vasquez has bragged about how much he loves his coach.

"Greivis is Greivis," Williams said. "He's going to do some things that probably if he was playing on another team, I'd be upset at. If he was playing on their team, they'd like him a lot, though."

Williams had better hope that tonight isn't Vasquez's final game for the Terps. He's the only reliable barometer by which the Terps can predict success. They'll go as far as Vasquez can take them.

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