Terps Are In

No.10-seeded Maryland to play Cal in West regional

March 16, 2009|By Ken Murray and Rick Maese | Ken Murray and Rick Maese,ken.murray@baltsun.com and rick.maese@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK -Maryland's perseverance and an 11th-hour stand in Atlanta were rewarded last night when the Terps earned a trip to Kansas City, Mo., for the NCAA basketball tournament.

Tense moments passed in the Maryland players lounge before CBS announced a Thursday matchup, to start about 2:55 p.m., with the University of California as the 10th seed in the West Region. Then came the eruption.

"The moment coming up to that, when our name was called, was pretty nerve-racking," said Terps junior guard Eric Hayes. "We saw a couple of other bubble teams get called that could have hurt us bad. Once our name was called, all havoc broke loose in the room, and we were just going crazy, hugging each other, throwing stuff. It was pretty fun."

Morgan State had a similar, if more public, display when the newly crowned champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference drew their first invitation to the NCAA Division I tournament.

Watching in the theater of the school's new student center, a crowd of more than 200 stood and roared approval when the Bears joined the Terps in Kansas City. Playing as the 15th seed in the South Region, Morgan will face Oklahoma about 9:40 p.m. Thursday, bringing a distinct Maryland flavor to the 18,000-seat Sprint Center.

It was an early January victory over the Terps that helped Morgan escape a No. 16 seed and the dreaded play-in game - between the two lowest-rated teams, staged two days before the tournament begins - to which MEAC teams are usually assigned.

That loss also helped put the Terps on the bubble, a circumstance they finally shrugged off with two victories in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Atlanta.

'It's never easy'

Saying it needed two wins to make the NCAA field, Maryland (20-13) beat North Carolina State and upset seventh-ranked Wake Forest before losing by six points to Duke in the ACC semifinals on Saturday.

"It's never easy," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "When you look at those teams that are left out every year, it's incredible how many good teams there are now. ... So, if you're in a situation like ours, where it's not completely smooth during the year, the players are going to feel like they're in and out of the tournament at various times of the year. So you have to maintain that ability to focus on the next game and not listen to everything you hear or read and be able to still have hope that you can make it."

Since winning the NCAA title in 2002, Maryland had failed to make the NCAA tournament three times, including last season. Williams became the focal point for the fans' frustration this season. When redemption arrived last night, his players expressed their support physically and verbally.

"I'm so happy for Coach Williams," said senior forward Dave Neal. "He works so extremely hard during the season. There are some nights he won't sleep at all because he's watching so much game tape. He's had a tough season. The media's been on him. The fact that we played extremely tough and made it back to the NCAA tournament shows people what a great coach he is."

Junior guard Greivis Vasquez turned the table on Williams' critics in the Terps' moment of triumph. "All those people who wrote what they wrote and said what they said, now they can answer their own questions," Vasquez said. "What else do they want? Hopefully, we can make it to the Final Four, so they can really just never talk anymore about Maryland. Unbelievable job for Coach Williams."

Bears dancing

If Williams silenced his critics, Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman has paid his dues. He came off a 10-year ban by the NCAA for rules violations at California to bring Morgan's moribund program back to life. The Bears have won the past two regular-season titles in the MEAC and now have their first Division I bid.

"Todd's done a great job," Williams said. "Not just because they're the champions of the MEAC. But each job you have ... is different, each job presents its own problems, each job has certain advantages. I think Todd has done a great job figuring out a way to do it at Morgan State."

For Bozeman, 45, it was his fourth NCAA berth in seven years as a head coach. Before the pairings were unveiled and when Morgan's band struck up one of its best songs, the coach started dancing onstage and invited two of his players to join him.

Considering where Bozeman has been, Kansas City looks pretty good.

"We are dancing," he said later. "They could've sent us to Siberia. Who cares? We're playing. People are going to be there, it's going to be on TV, CBS is going to be there. So who cares where we are? I always say it doesn't matter where we play. Just give us two baskets and a ball. We could play it outside."

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