By John Feinstein
Friday, March 13, 2009
ATLANTA Four days ago, after a devastating loss to Virginia in the final game of the regular season, Maryland Coach Gary Williams made a decision: He decided it was time to stop being a coach.
Coaches always tell their players they have to go one game at a time. They can't look past an opponent. The next game is the most important game of the season.
Williams abandoned all that.
He walked into the locker room and told his team the goal now was simple: win two games.
"I told them I had never done this before in my coaching career, but we had to be mature about this," he said Thursday night after his team had won the first of its two-game mission, beating North Carolina State, 74-69, in the first round of the ACC tournament. "We knew after the Virginia game we were going to have to win two games down here to get to the NCAA tournament.
"I told the guys not to expect anyone to get too excited after the first win because that wasn't where we're trying to get." He smiled. "Still, it's tough to win two if you don't win the first one."
It wasn't easy to get the first one Thursday in a building that was often library-quiet even though there were all kinds of karma in Maryland's favor.
To begin with, the Terrapins were returning to the Georgia Dome, the scene of the greatest moment in the school's basketball history: the 2002 national championship. Throw in the fact that the ACC decided to show highlights of the 2004 ACC tournament -- a tournament won by Maryland -- on the building's video boards while the teams were warming up, and there was plenty of reason for optimism.
Of course this event has not been a very happy place for the Terrapins the past four years. They had won one tournament game -- over Georgia Tech in 2006 -- and had reached only one quarterfinal during that stretch.
In truth, though, the two factors that mattered most had nothing to do with omens. They had to do with who showed up.
Greivis Vazquez was a little bit late, needing 20 minutes to find his ACC tournament legs. Vazquez, with some help from back-court mate Eric Hayes, finally got the Terrapins to the finish line -- or, more appropriately, the halfway point.
Maryland trailed 59-58 with 4 minutes 50 seconds left when N.C. State Coach Sidney Lowe called a mystery timeout with his team playing as well as it had all night. Coincidence or not, the Terrapins promptly went on a 14-3 run, punching their ticket for a Friday night meeting with Wake Forest.
The math for Friday is fairly simple: Maryland wins and Williams can begin planning a get-together Sunday evening, so he and his players can see where they will be seeded in the NCAA tournament. A loss to the Demon Deacons and an NIT meeting with George Mason next week becomes a real possibility.
Williams admitted that getting to the NCAA tournament with this team would mean a lot to him. It would be his 16th trip to the tournament as a coach, 13th at Maryland. Only the bid in 1994, which came after he and the school had lived through two years of NCAA probation, would rank ahead of this one.
"It took me about two days to stop laughing when I read about Florida State's probation [for academic cheating] the other day," he said. "Three scholarships? Vacated wins? We got two years out of postseason and a year off television. We couldn't even play in the ACC tournament one year. Recovering from that was a big deal. Getting in that year changed the entire program.
"But this would be second. A lot of people picked us at or near the bottom of the league. I've thought a lot this year about what it was like when I was a high school JV coach because the one thing that's still the same now as then is that I love practice. And this has been a very good practice team. They've bought into the idea that for us to survive this season we have to practice hard every day. That's why we're one game away from our goal."
Of course, to get the chance to rise or fall against Wake Forest, Maryland had to make sure it took care of business against N.C. State. If this team's history was any guide, that wasn't going to be easy if only because mediocre teams tend to bring out mediocrity in the Terrapins.
For a long time Thursday, that was the story. N.C. State jumped to a 21-8 lead, but Williams went to a zone that seemed to baffle the Wolfpack and Hayes came off the bench to hit three three-pointers that got the offense started.
"If Eric doesn't hit those shots, I'm not sure we recover from our start," Williams said. "They were critical."
Everyone chipped in for Maryland. Vasquez was just 2 for 6 after the first 20 minutes, but 5 for 10 in the second half. Dave Neal hit two critical three-pointers when N.C. State was still making things tough and Hayes was superb, hitting 5 of 6 three-point attempts and 6 of 8 free throws down the stretch. All eight Terrapins who played scored and had at least one rebound.
"We're on a mission," Vazquez said. "We're happy to win tonight, but we're not satisfied."
Satisfaction can't come unless Maryland finds a way to beat Wake Forest on Friday night. Want another omen? The last time the Terrapins won this tournament, they beat Wake in the quarterfinals as a decided underdog, a win that probably clinched an NCAA bid.
Of course Williams and his players couldn't care less about omens. After a long winter filled with ups and downs, they now stand 40 minutes from achieving an unlikely goal.
"I was surprised when Coach Williams brought up the idea that we had to win two," Neal said as the locker room emptied. "He had T-shirts made up for us that were in our lockers after practice on Monday. I guess we knew then he was serious."
When it comes to figuring out ways to win, Williams is always serious.
"It would be pretty satisfying to see our name go up on the board on Sunday night," Williams said. "This group has worked very, very hard to get to where it is right now."
The "win two" T-shirts can be put away.
Maybe Williams can get "win one" T-shirts made up before Friday night. That's all the Terrapins need. If they can get that win, Williams can have one more T-shirt made up for his players. It will say, "NCAA tournament 2009."