Call this Must-Win, Part II.
Five days after the Maryland Terrapins lost a game they had described as a "must-win," the sense of urgency around the program could not be higher entering today's game against Clemson in the first round of the ACC tournament at MCI Center. Saturday's loss at Virginia Tech badly bruised Maryland's hopes of being invited to the NCAA tournament for a 12th straight year, but a string of losses by other teams in similarly precarious situations gave Maryland renewed optimism.
If eighth-seeded Maryland beats Clemson today, the Terps likely will earn one of the final at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's quarterfinal against North Carolina.
Clemson's Sharrod Ford, left, beats Maryland's Nik Caner-Medley to a loose ball during the Tigers' 97-93 win on Feb. 22. Ford had 49 points and 20 rebounds in two wins over Maryland.
(Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
The mood among players yesterday was one of opportunity and urgency. When asked to pinpoint the key to the game, guard Chris McCray said: "Win. That's the key right there. Whether it's ugly or pretty, we just have to win. We know we hold our fate in our hands."
Added center Ekene Ibekwe, "This is basically our season."
Maryland (16-11, 7-9) ranks a respectable 50th in the Ratings Percentage Index, a measurement of a team's strength considered by the selection committee. And the Terps twice have beaten Duke, a team still in contention for a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
"If we win against Clemson," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said, "it puts us in pretty good shape."
Maryland has not missed the NCAA tournament since 1993. But this hasn't been a typical season; the Terps have been among the most inconsistent teams in the nation despite having four starters back from the team that won last season's ACC tournament.
"It's been a tough season," guard Mike Jones said.
Maryland players pledged that today's performance will more closely resemble what they did in the two victories over Duke than it will the three straight losses to close the regular season. The buzzword all week in practice has been defense.
Clemson (15-14, 5-11) shot 58.2 and 50 percent in two victories over the Terps during the regular season. Big man Sharrod Ford scored a combined 49 points in the wins. And Feb. 22, Clemson scored the most points (97) it had ever scored in an ACC road game that did not go into overtime.
Maryland players described the tenor of the week's practices as intense, with a particular emphasis on honing fundamentals. "We do have a lot of pride as a basketball program," Williams said.
Players were reluctant to say they could draw upon last year's championship as inspiration for this season's tournament. But Williams wasn't, saying that while it's a new year, these players have accomplished it before -- "We've done it," he said. The difference this year is that it would take four victories in four days for Maryland to claim the conference crown.
Maryland made its three-game run last year in Greensboro, N.C., the same place the Terps won the ACC tournament title in 1984. This is the first time in Williams's 16-year tenure at his alma mater that the event will be held in the Washington area.