Maryland Men's Basketball Team Relishes Return to NCAA Tournament

John Feinstein and Tony Kornheiser discuss Maryland's seed and chances in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009

Maryland Coach Gary Williams kept moving toward the door of the John Paul Jones Arena press room as he shook Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage's hand and congratulated him on the Cavaliers' win. Littlepage pulled Williams in and offered a few words of encouragement.

The Terrapins' loss March 7 in the regular season finale at Virginia had placed them in a precarious position heading into the ACC tournament. Maryland had to win two games -- one against a top 10 opponent -- to maintain its NCAA tournament hopes.

"Yeah, you know, we're all right," Williams told Littlepage. And then he moved on.

Eight days following that encounter, Williams's words proved prophetic. The Terrapins -- having advanced to the ACC tournament semifinals and put up a fight against the eventual champion -- learned last night they would return to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. Maryland was awarded the 10th seed in the West Region and will face seventh-seeded California in the first round Thursday in Kansas City, Mo.

Throughout a season full of on-court intrigue and off-court tumult, players praised Williams for his ability to compartmentalize and to keep moving forward. Whatever the result of the previous game, they said, Williams's sole focus remained on the horizon.

"If you're in a situation like ours, you know, where it wasn't completely smooth during the year, you're going to feel like -- and your players are going to feel like -- you're in and out of the tournament at various times during the year," Williams said last night. "But what you have to do is maintain that ability to focus on the next game and not listen to everything that you hear or read or whatever and be able to still have hope that you can make it.

"When that happens, that's when you erupt. That's why that's such a great feeling."

At 6:19 p.m., players could be heard rejoicing emphatically in the amphitheater adjacent to the Comcast Center media room. Williams said Dave Neal, the team's lone senior, was the most overjoyed. "All havoc broke loose," according to junior guard Eric Hayes.

But as ebullient as that moment was, players said the hours leading up to the selection announcement -- much like the season -- felt incredibly long and trying.

Sophomore guard Adrian Bowie said he woke up around 10 a.m. yesterday and later watched Tennessee play Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship. When the Bulldogs claimed the SEC title and, thus, the conference's automatic bid, Bowie said his nerves were jolted.

Mississippi State almost certainly would not otherwise have earned an NCAA tournament berth, and its victory snatched away a precious at-large bid from a pool of about a half-dozen bubble teams.

Bowie spent the next few hours sending roughly 150 text messages to "everybody in my phone book." Anything, he said, to pass the time.

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