By John Feinstein
Saturday, March 14, 2009
As soon as it was over, Greivis Vasquez was jumping into Gary Williams's arms, wanting to share the moment with his coach. For a split second -- no more -- Williams actually smiled. He knew, just as Vasquez did, that the soap opera that has been Maryland's basketball season had taken a twist few outside the locker room imagined as recently as five days ago.
When the NCAA tournament bracket is unveiled Sunday evening, Maryland will be in it. If the Terrapins can continue their run in the ACC tournament for another day or even two, that will be gravy. Friday night was the game. Facing a Wake Forest team that should have been about the Terps' worst possible matchup because of its size, the Terrapins took the lead at 6-4 and never looked back.
They coasted to a 75-64 victory that puts them in Saturday's semifinals against Duke and -- if the tournament selection committee is paying any attention -- in the NCAA field for just the second time in five seasons.
"We were pretty good tonight," Williams conceded, walking down a hallway in the Georgia Dome. He was fighting a smile because, as he pointed out, enjoying a win such as this for very long just isn't his way.
"It's not what I do. We get back to the hotel; I'll start looking at tape. I'm not going to take an hour to sit back and enjoy this. I figure if the players are giving 100 percent effort -- and this team has done that -- then I better give 100 percent effort too."
He would at least take time to eat though, right?
"I can eat while I watch tape," he said.
That relentless, nothing-is-ever-enough nature has made Williams the coach that he is. His personality lives on-court in Vasquez, who may take the occasional wild shot or get out of control at times but clearly lives to play the game.
Friday was a typical Vasquez game. He made just 6 of 19 from the field, but he had nine assists and eight rebounds and constantly pleaded and cajoled with his teammates not to back off, not to let the talented Demon Deacons get back into the game.
At one point late in the first half, as Adrian Bowie was about to shoot free throws, Vasquez stood in front of him and delivered a stern lecture. Bowie kept nodding his head; Vasquez kept talking.
"I was just trying to be a leader," Vasquez said. "I told him he needed to wake up and play better, that we needed him. I had to get in his face a little and remind him that he was better than he was playing right then."
It was exactly the kind of talk Williams might have given Bowie on the bench, except that the accent would have been south Jersey rather than Hispanic and the language might have been a tad more colorful -- a tad.
Williams has talked a lot this season about how his players have bought into everything he has asked them to do. The last two nights it has been a zone defense that baffled North Carolina State and made Wake Forest's offense look like it was in reverse at times. Wake shot 22 of 74 for the game, including a remarkable 3 of 25 on three-point attempts.
Jeff Teague, who as recently as late January appeared to be the best point guard in a league loaded with them, missed his first eight shots and threw the ball to the guys in red almost as often as to the guys in white.
"We knew they were a great driving team," Williams said. "They take about 15 threes a game, which I think is as low as anyone in the league. We took a chance. If they'd made threes, we'd have been in trouble."
The only Deacon who really showed up was James Johnson, who spent a lot of the second half jumping over the smaller Terrapins to slam his teammates' misses.
"A couple times I got up to yell at Dave [Neal] and then I thought, 'What the hell, that's a great play,' " Williams said. "Overall, though, our guys did a great job keeping them from dominating the boards."
Williams would have been happy if his team had stayed within five rebounds of the Deacons. Instead, they out-rebounded them 44-40, led by Landon Milbourne's 11.
With their season on the line, the Terrapins produced their best overall effort at both ends of the floor. Not wanting to tempt fate, Williams dodged a question at the postgame news conference about whether his team was in the tournament after the win.
"We had good wins before this one," he said. "I hope we're judged on our body of work."
Later, though, he conceded that he thought the bid was wrapped up. Near the end of the game, the Maryland fans began chanting his name. Williams heard the chant, just as he has heard the boos of the recent past. Did the thought cross his mind that some of the same people chanting his name had probably been booing him a few weeks ago?
"Me, think that way?" he asked. "Me?"
Then he paused. "You know as you get older, you understand that this is the way it works. Winning teams make fans good fans. They care. They want their school and their team to do well. Sometimes they go too far when they get frustrated, but when you do what I do, that's part of the deal."
There were no boos Friday night. Even Vasquez, who has been snappish at times with members of the media, was in a good mood. He said he wasn't sure if this was his finest moment at Maryland but admitted that hugging his coach at the end was a moment of pure joy.
"I love the guy," he said. "He's like my stepdad. I'm a big fan of his; it just happens that I'm out on the court playing while I'm being a fan."
This building has been very good to Maryland and to Williams. The locker room they occupied Friday was the same one they were in seven years ago when they beat Indiana for the national championship. Williams's pregame talk Friday wasn't much different than it was that night.
"We're playing Indiana," he said then. "Don't worry about the national championship; worry about beating Indiana."
Friday, it was about Wake Forest.
"Don't worry about the NCAA tournament," he said. "Worry about beating Wake Forest. The rest will take care of itself."
On all counts, he was right. From start to finish, Maryland was the better team, the tougher team, the smarter team, the team that wanted to win more. Early in the second half, after a 12-2 run had extended Maryland's halftime lead to 48-33, Wake Forest Coach Dino Gaudio called a timeout to settle down his team.
On the ensuing possession, Wake was called for a shot-clock violation; there were just no holes in the Maryland defense.
The team that had come here to win two had won two.
"I've got T-shirts back at the hotel that say, 'win three,' " Williams said.
He always wants more, which is why Maryland is still playing this weekend -- and will be playing when it matters most next week.