By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009
ATLANTA, March 12 -- The thought that made Eric Hayes choke up at his locker stall following his most prolific performance of the season had little to do with point totals or postseason possibilities. Yes, the Maryland squad he spurred to victory kept its NCAA tournament hopes alive, but such matters seemed almost trivial in the context of the day Hayes and his family had endured.
Hours before Maryland recorded a 74-69 victory over North Carolina State in the first round of the ACC tournament, Hayes received news that a close family friend -- his father's best friend -- had passed away during surgery to repair a torn Achilles' tendon suffered, of all things, while playing basketball.
With Chip Lozinak's memory consuming his thoughts and Lozinak's first name covering the toe of both his shoes, Hayes went about honoring the man who had coached alongside his father for more than two decades the only way he could think how. Hayes made 5 of 6 three-point attempts and tallied a game-high 21 points.
The performance meant a lot to Hayes, who lost his spot in the starting lineup midseason and has had to adapt to a reserve role. The game meant a lot to Maryland, which tallied one of the two wins many observers believe it needs to gain an NCAA tournament bid. On Friday, the Terrapins take on second-seeded Wake Forest in the ACC quarterfinals.
But sitting on a stool, hands clasped and fighting back tears, Hayes had more important sentiments on his mind.
"I was thinking about [Lozinak] the whole game," Hayes said. "I was definitely thinking about him."
With nine minutes remaining in the first half and Maryland trailing by 13, Hayes caught a pass from Greivis Vasquez and sank a three-pointer from the wing. He repeated the act on the Terrapins' next possession. By halftime, Hayes was 3 for 4 from beyond the arc, and the score was tied.
"Once I knocked that [first] one down, I was feeling pretty good about myself and about my shot," Hayes said. "Greivis did a great job of finding me when I was open, and I was just fortunate to knock them down."
Hayes frequently found himself wide open due to the 2-3 zone defense the Wolfpack initially implemented. It was no secret the Terrapins had struggled of late scoring against zone schemes, yet they found the one N.C. State chose to their liking. Maryland closed the half on a 15-4 run.
"It was a little shocking," senior forward Dave Neal said of the Wolfpack's decision to open in a 2-3 zone. "But N.C. State has shown [multiple zone defenses], so we knew they had it all in their arsenal. We've worked against both 3-2 and 2-3 in practice the last couple of days, and with the plays that we added and the plays that we've worked on, we did a great job executing for this whole entire game."
N.C. State switched to man-to-man coverage, but to no avail. Vasquez began slashing into the lane and dishing out to the perimeter, just as he had 11 days earlier while leading the Terrapins to a 71-60 win on the Wolfpack's home court. Inside the Georgia Dome last night, Vasquez finished with 17 points and 10 assists.
Hayes was on the receiving end of Vasquez's passes on several occasions. Just as Hayes's three-pointers helped the Terrapins erase N.C. State's lead after the Wolfpack made 7 of 10 shots to open the game, his long-range efforts helped Maryland maintain a lead of its own in the second half.
"I don't think we win the game -- I'm not sure we're able to recover from the way that game started -- if Eric doesn't come in the game," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "Greivis found him a couple of times, but you've still got to knock those shots down."
Hayes felt he had a little extra help in doing so last night. For 21 years, Lozinak was the summer league coach for former Potomac High boys' coach Kendall Hayes, Eric's father. During that time, Lozinak developed a close relationship with the entire Hayes family.
When Lozinak went in for surgery to repair a torn Achilles' tendon Thursday morning, Hayes said, no one thought the procedure would be life-threatening. Hayes said a blood clot led to complications that became terminal.
Hayes dutifully answered a bevy of questions after his big game was over. Yes, the players were nervous. Yes, they knew what was at stake. And yes, they are eager to prove their NCAA tournament merit Friday night against Wake Forest.
The sorrow in Hayes's eyes revealed a deeper burden.
"We miss him," Hayes said. "But I know he was watching tonight."