Doomed by a Familiar Act

By John Feinstein
Friday, March 14, 2008


In a very real sense, Maryland's 71-68 loss to Boston College in the first round of the ACC tournament Thursday night was the Terrapins' season played out in one 40-minute game.

For the first seven minutes the Terrapins were men playing against boys. BC was lucky to get the ball across midcourt much less get off a decent shot. James Gist and Bambale Osby were dominating the inside at both ends. The Eagles' Tyrese Rice couldn't take a step without seeing four long arms in his face -- two belonging to Greivis Vasquez, the other two belonging to one of Maryland's inside players who jumped out at him anytime he tried to turn a corner on Vasquez.

After seven minutes it was 20-5 and thoughts of Clemson and perhaps Duke on Saturday didn't seem to be unreasonable. Maybe this could be 2004, when the Terrapins put together a miraculous weekend and went from the NCAA tournament bubble to the ACC championship and a No. 4 seed.

"I thought we had a chance to put them away in the first half and we couldn't do it," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "We just couldn't get it done. We let them see light and let them believe they had a chance."

That has become a familiar script for this team. In fact, during Maryland's last six games, it was outscored in the second half by 265-204, including 46-37 Thursday night.

After six minutes of near-perfect basketball, the Terrapins reverted to the form they had shown in the second half against Clemson (blowing a 20-point lead) and Virginia (going from three down with six minutes left to a 15-point loss). Anyone who had followed this team knew the 20-5 burst wouldn't last. They knew the avalanche of turnovers was coming, that the Terrapins would start throwing the basketball around as if it were a hockey puck.

By halftime it was 31-25 even though Rice had just one field goal (on 1-of-7 shooting) and the Eagles had tossed up enough bricks to build yet another new arena in Charlotte.

But it was the start of the second half, the first two possessions, that doomed Maryland. On the first possession, with the shot clock running down, Gist had to shoot a three -- and it went in. On the next possession, feeling it, he fired a 17-footer -- it also went in.


When Maryland has played its best this season -- including at the start of this game -- it has been with Gist playing in the low post, using his wide body and his quick feet to get high-percentage shots that can't be stopped very often. When the Terrapins have gone down like a stone it has been when Gist starts thinking he's a jump shooter. After he had made those first two shots, Gist's next five shots were jumpers. None of them went in.

The entire tone of the game changed. BC, which hadn't been able to convert in transition, began doing just that. There's a very good reason why the Eagles had lost 12 of 13 games coming in here: Their big men are gravity-laden non-leapers -- slow non-leapers at that. Maryland didn't block 10 shots in the game because Gist and Osby became Bill Russell and Patrick Ewing, they blocked 10 shots because BC's inside players have trouble getting off the floor.

But when the Terrapins began turning the ball over faster than you can say N-I-T, the Eagles were able to get shots so easy they were virtually un-missable. The game was decided during a four-minute stretch that began after an Adrian Bowie drive put Maryland up 50-47 with 7:38 to go.

During that stretch, BC went on a 13-0 run that was greatly aided by the fact that Maryland had five turnovers in six possessions and the other possession produced another missed Gist jumper. Every basket during the run was a layup in transition except for a Rakim Sanders three-pointer from the corner.

Williams used all his remaining timeouts during the four-minute debacle trying to stem the tide and calm his team down. Exactly why a team with two seniors starting inside and a point guard who has had the ball in his hands for two full seasons would completely fall apart -- just as it did against Clemson in the game that turned this season in the wrong direction for good -- is a mystery that Williams will spend most of the spring trying to figure out.

Naturally, Maryland didn't quit. Williams-coached teams don't quit. The Terrapins began to press every time they scored and BC began turning the ball over. (The two teams combined for 36 turnovers, 21 by Maryland.) For a team without leapers, the Eagles have a strange approach to trying to get the ball inbounds against pressure: They throw the ball in the air and hope one of their players will catch it. That approach produced a quick 7-0 Maryland run that knocked the lead down to 60-57 with 2:37 left.

A basket by Josh Southern made it 62-57 and then came the final defining moment of the season: With Maryland absolutely needing to score, Gist took another three -- clanging it badly with 1:43 left. Maryland had to foul after that and, although BC wasn't great at the foul line, it was good enough to hang on to win a game that won't be showing up on any "Classic" replays anytime soon.

And so, for the third time in four years, it is back to the NIT for Maryland. Williams talked bravely about how helpful it will be for his six freshmen to play more games. That may be so. But it won't do Gist, Osby or Vazquez -- the three best players on this team -- any good. It certainly won't do Williams any good. He turned 63 nine days ago but looked about 100 when the game was over and he sat trying to explain what had happened. If he had real answers this wouldn't have happened yet again.

The Terrapins have now won one NCAA tournament game in four years. There was a moment not so long ago when it looked as if they were going back to the tournament after their disastrous start before New Year's. But there was something dysfunctional about this team on the court.

Vasquez was wildly inconsistent. On Thursday night he began the game in complete control of the offense and finished with nine assists. But he also had six turnovers (back-court partner Eric Hayes had four) and didn't make a field goal the first 28 minutes. Gist was brilliant and awful -- sometimes in the same half.

In short, the team's two best players were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the switch could be almost instantaneous. At the end of the book, Dr. Jekyll is overcome by his dark side and can't return from being Mr. Hyde.

That was Maryland on Thursday night. That was Maryland this season. No one wants Mr. Hyde showing up at the Big Dance. Which is why the Terrapins won't be there -- again.

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