By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
As Maryland finished its first half against Virginia last night, senior forward Dave Neal sat in the locker room holding the hand of his teary-eyed mother and answering questions from the team doctor, who had to determine if Neal could return to the game after suffering a gash above his left eye.
Recite the months of the year backwards. Spell the word "world" backwards. Ball, cat and Ohio -- remember those words and recall them in five minutes.
"If I had gotten one of those wrong, they would have classified it as a concussion," Neal said.
Neal proved as adept with word games as he was on the court in the critical moments of a game that he had earlier called a "must-win" for the Terrapins. After reentering the game with about 13 minutes to play, Neal made a handful of heady plays, sank a key three-pointer and even sacrificed his body again by taking a charge in the final minutes of an 84-78 victory.
"What goes on in players' minds is a big" factor, Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "I know Dave coming back picked everyone up. It picked me up."
Neal started the game by making Maryland's first two baskets, a jump shot and a three-pointer. But about four minutes into action, Neal believes he caught an unintentional elbow from Virginia center Assane Sene.
"I was seeing stars," Neal said. "That's never happened to me before."
Moments later, blood trickled down his face and he headed to the locker room for further evaluation. After receiving 15 stitches, calming his worried mother and passing what he called "the concussion test," Neal returned to the bench and told Williams he was ready to play.
"At first he didn't believe me," Neal said.
"I didn't know if he could play a minute," Williams said.
Soon after returning to the court amid an ovation from the crowd, Neal stood behind the three-point line holding the ball above his head and eyeing the court. When he spotted Sean Mosley cutting to the basket, Neal fired an overhead pass to Mosley, whose layup temporarily halted Virginia's momentum.
But the Cavaliers kept rallying, cutting a 17-point deficit to two. And Maryland fans have become all too familiar with collapses this month.
Neal had a slight headache, but his vision was fine. So he released an open three-pointer that swished through the net, giving the Terrapins breathing room with five minutes remaining. Virginia never got any closer.
Neal finished with eight points in 13 minutes, but his return helped change the tenor of a game that was slipping away from Maryland. As a senior, Neal said he is counting down his remaining games and wants to cherish every opportunity to win, regardless of his well-being.
When the final buzzer sounded, Neal repeatedly pumped his fist near midcourt and charged to the locker room as fans chanted his name.
After the game, Neal sat in the locker room dabbing his wound. The corner of the eyebrow was swollen and bleeding.
"It's a great pick-up line," Neal said. "I can say to girls, 'Yeah, it happened in the heat of battle.' "