Big Opportunity Wasted

By Mike Wise
Sunday, March 18, 2007

BUFFALO

This one will stick in their craw. This was about as maddening an end to a season as Maryland might imagine. You overcome a five-point deficit in the final two minutes and a rotten call on your last real possession of the game. You play nails defense against the most mistake-free team in the nation for 30-plus seconds, hoping for the rebound and a shot to tie or win.

And the ball hits the front of the rim and is cradled by a 6-foot Butler guard, by the tiny team you outrebounded by 14 for the game.

D.J. Strawberry had this look of disbelief mirroring his teammates at the end of his Terrapins career: Can't we run it back? Can't we check the ball up top and start over?

The run is done? The run is done.

Butler didn't siphon Maryland's spirit with its 62-59 win in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday. But the Bulldogs took everything else from the Terrapins in a hard-to-watch eyesore. They neutralized all Strawberry, James Gist, Ekene Ibekwe, Mike Jones and Greivis Vasquez are: athletic, instinctual, impulsive and oh, so impatient.

Butler pick-and-popped Maryland, chucking up 26 three-point attempts, employing small ball like a bunch of geezers at the Y who had been playing together forever and couldn't wait to teach the young Turks a lesson.

Except some of the young Turks were old Terps, and a lot of them should have known better. For all that was made of Jones finding his stroke the past two months, people forget Maryland resurrected its season by finding a way to guard the perimeter in the ACC. Gary Williams's team led the conference in defending beyond the arc. And against the one team whose faces they absolutely had to find a way to get hands in, they couldn't when it mattered.

This one is hard to stomach because it robbed Maryland of an opportunity to see if it had greatness within. A scrum of a win over Butler would have catapulted the Terrapins into a likely round-of-16 matchup against the top-seeded team in the tournament and the defending national champion. I'm not saying Maryland would have knocked off Florida; I am saying the Terrapins were one of the handful of teams out there that could have played with Florida in March. They deserved to give themselves that opportunity, and that they didn't is going to haunt them for a good, long while.

They simply ran into an undersize, disciplined squad that wouldn't let them play their game for 40 minutes. Then Butler effectively swiped their last chance with that rebound at the end. The Terrapins had an awful call go against them with 41 seconds left. Trailing by two, Strawberry had not yet secured a pass as he cut to the rim inside when he was whistled for a charge. This wasn't a bang-bang play. The rule says the player is supposed to be allowed to catch the ball. Strawberry had no room with Brandon Crone crowding him. If anything, it would have been a good no-call.

That didn't lose the game for Maryland. But it didn't help.

Butler does not have a player taller than 6 feet 7, and A.J. Graves, their star, is barely 6-1. Maryland's front line was bigger and more active around the rim. There was no excuse for not continuing to pound the ball inside. No matter how much a small team sags on your big men and digs for the ball once someone like Ibekwe is gullible enough to put it on the floor, you cannot shoot just 15 free throws against Butler and convert only seven.

On offense, the Bulldogs' economy of movement, their spacing -- the way they milked the shot clock unless they had a layup or open jumper -- just throttled Maryland. The Butler players huddled under the bleachers before they took the floor for warmups.

"Let's dictate it to them all day," one of the players said.

And they did, turning the 80-points-a-game Terrapins of the ACC into some aesthetically unappealing Horizon League squad.

"No excuse," Strawberry said. He refused to cry about the call at the end and blamed Butler's three-point barrage for his team's demise. "They knew what they were going to do and we didn't stop them," he said.

The temptation is to jump on the small-school-from-Indiana bandwagon and get caught up in that lore. And you'll see lots of that next week on television, leading up to itty-bitty Butler most likely playing the gargantuan Gators. But Hoosier Hysteria didn't happen to Maryland yesterday. The Terrapins were undone by their own limitations and their inability to find a way to win the ugly, gritty games that move you forward in March.

When they couldn't be the up-and-down, free-flowing offensive machine that dunked on Duke and came back to stun North Carolina, they didn't know how to be anybody else. On the last day of their sometimes magical and ultimately maddening season, Butler dictated it to them -- all day.


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