Terrapins feel fresh breeze

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

March 16, 2009|By RICK MAESE

COLLEGE PARK -On a brisk evening, as rain soaked the ground and a mist masked the horizon, a breeze passed through campus. It seemed to touch everyone.

"It was one of the best moments of my life," said junior guard Greivis Vasquez, who's prone to extremes but didn't seem to be overstating his emotions this time.

"Once I saw Maryland get up there, I threw my clipboard down, jumped up and screamed as loud as I could," said Dave Neal, the team's emotional backbone and lone senior.

"It was a great feeling for me," coach Gary Williams said. "But my feelings were for the players because of their work this year. I didn't want them to not get rewarded for what they did."

Oh, this breeze touched everyone. Even Debbie Yow, whom so many Williams supporters foolishly depict as an enemy of the basketball program that funds much of her athletic department.

"I am especially proud of this team for reaching this goal, after a few heartbreaking losses during the regular season," Yow said last night. "They have showed a lot of courage."

For now, the program isn't back at the top of the ladder. But it has at least found the ladder again. The Terps have put themselves in position to climb.

Anyone who watched them in last week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament has got to realize that breeze didn't blow its way out of College Park last night. It will still be at the Terps' backs this week, the momentum carrying them into the tournament and a first-round date with California on Thursday in Kansas City, Mo.

"We have a great chance to make a run here," Neal said. "We're playing extremely well right now."

Though Williams won't acknowledge this, there was a sense of redemption surrounding yesterday's unveiling of the NCAA tournament field. He would like us to think there was never a rainy day around his program. But this tournament trek has been one of his toughest. And one of the most satisfying, considering the heat that has surrounded Williams and his program.

Making three National Invitation Tournament trips in four seasons has a way of bringing out the vultures. Well, they were swatted away with vigor last night, perhaps scared by the noise as much as anything.

Players and coaches gathered at Comcast Center, and, though media were not invited to view the celebration, when Maryland was announced as a No. 10 seed in the West Regional, as guard Eric Hayes put it, "all havoc broke loose."

Pillows were flying. Drinks were tossed into the air. At one point, "Cliff Tucker jumped over the sofa," freshman Sean Mosley said.

Nerves had been wound too tightly all day, and when they uncoiled, it was with a fury. Not like a jack-in-the-box. More like a Terp-in-the-bracket. Back to the Dance, for the second time in five seasons.

They always believed, and that's probably why the celebration was so sweet, because critics and so many of their own fans were convinced Williams couldn't find his way back to the tournament, that he was still getting directions from a yellowed, antiquated map in this GPS world.

"At some point this season, people thought we couldn't win games and get to the tournament, and now we've accomplished all that," Vasquez said. "I'm very, very happy and proud of my teammates."

Oh, and if you're one for foreshadowing, consider this:

This isn't the first time the Terps entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed. In 1994, a young Maryland team that featured a freshman named Joe Smith beat No. 7 Saint Louis in the opening round and then upset No. 2 Massachusetts to reach the Sweet 16 (where the Terps lost by seven points to No. 3 Michigan).

Can they make a similar run again? Can they topple Cal and then find a way around No. 2 Memphis, a team that easily could've been a No. 1 seed?

Williams won't even entertain the question right now.

"Seriously, right now, I don't even know who's in that opposite game, who we'd play if we beat California," he said. "It doesn't matter. If we don't beat California, we're not going to play again, obviously."

I bring up that 1994 group not because of the modest run it made in that year's tournament, but rather the modest run the program made after it. That turned out to be the first of 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances.

The level of celebration that surrounded yesterday's bid underscored the unexpected nature of this team's success. Days such as yesterday need not be irregular. It is within reason to expect Selection Sunday in College Park to again be more about seeding than sweating. Maybe like that 1994 team, this could be the start of something ...

But they're in. The Terps dance. That's all that counts. And for now, the refreshing breeze is certainly worth appreciating.

NO. 10 MARYLAND (20-13) VS. NO. 7 CALIFORNIA (22-10)

Thursday, 2:55 p.m. (approx.),

Kansas City, Mo. TV: Chs. 13, 9

california at a glance

Record: 22-10 (16-2 home, 6-6 road, 0-2 neutral)

Starting lineup: 5-10 G Jerome Randle (18.4 points, 4.9 assists), 6-5 G Patrick Christopher, 6-8 F Jamal Boykin (6.4 rebounds), 6-6 F Theo Robertson, 7-0 C Jordan Wilkes

Summary: The Golden Bears lost in the first round of the Pacific-10 tournament and have dropped four of their past six games. They have played three times in March. Cal scores 75.0 points per game and yields 68.3. Three starters average double figures in scoring - Randle, Christopher (14.6) and Robertson (12.8). The Bears make more than 40 percent of their three-point shots, led by Robertson at 49.1 percent and Randle at 46.8 percent.

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