By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; D01
As Maryland junior guard Cliff Tucker trotted off the floor amid the delirium of a Comcast Center crowd that was prematurely celebrating a victory Saturday over Georgia Tech, he figured there was no way Coach Gary Williams would draw up a play designed to end with the ball in his hands.
Down one point with 1.5 seconds remaining, Maryland's options to take the final shot included senior guard Greivis Vasquez, who moments earlier had sunk a shot from just inside the midcourt line that was waved off because of a called Terrapins timeout. They also included Eric Hayes, the team's top marksman, who had shot 6 for 10 from the field on the afternoon.
But it was Tucker -- a player whose Maryland career has ridden as many emotional waves as were present in the closing minute of Saturday's contest -- who got the call. Hayes found Tucker on an inbounds pass from midcourt. Tucker turned and fired his third three-point attempt of the game. And this time when the shot went in, Maryland's fans could celebrate a dramatic 76-74 win that preserved the Terrapins' unblemished home conference record this season.
"In AAU, I hit a little floater for a game-winner, but nothing like this; nothing to this capacity," said Tucker, who logged just nine minutes and finished with eight points. "It's probably one of the best plays of my career, of my life, so I'm happy."
Maryland (19-7, 9-3 ACC) entered Saturday's contest having won its previous ACC home games this season by an average of 19 points. On Friday, Williams said that margin was "a little artificial," given the way in which those foes were playing at the time.
Georgia Tech, the Terrapins knew, would prove to be a much more challenging obstacle. The Yellow Jackets (18-9, 6-7), who have been ranked in the top 25 on several occasions this season, own a talented front court and more back-court depth than they've had in the recent past.
The game remained close for much of the afternoon because Georgia Tech's raw talent matched Maryland's savvy. Led by freshman forward Derrick Favors, who tallied 21 points and 18 rebounds, the Yellow Jackets won the rebounding battle, 45-38.
Led by Vasquez, who registered 18 points to become the first player in ACC history to record 2,000 points, 700 assists and 600 rebounds in his career, the Terrapins penetrated the lane and earned a bevy of trips to the free throw line in the second half. Maryland made 70.6 percent of its foul shots; Georgia Tech, on the other hand, shot 55 percent from the free throw line.
Every free throw counted in a contest that came down to the final seconds. Yellow Jackets guard Iman Shumpert, who finished with 17 points, missed a jumper with five seconds left. Favors scored on a putback to put Georgia Tech up by one. Vasquez then took the ball upcourt and released a shot from just past half court that banked in with 0.9 of a second showing on the game clock.
But the officials ruled that Maryland assistant Keith Booth had called for a timeout before Vasquez took his shot.
"I knew it didn't count, but the fans kind of went wild so that was kind of weird," said Hayes, who finished with 15 points. "And then having to do it all over again and set up a play and for Cliff to make that shot, it was just amazing."
Williams said he usually would draw up a play for Vasquez or Hayes in that type of situation, but "things were a little crazy there." Instead, he went to Tucker, a player with whom the coach at times has had a contentious relationship the past few seasons. Tucker's practice habits have not always been up to Williams's standards, and last season Tucker publicly voiced frustration over his lack of playing time.
Tucker said that even on Saturday he was frustrated after playing three minutes in the first half. But Booth and fellow assistant Rob Ehsan encouraged him not to let that aggravation mount, as it had in the past.
"I've been through a lot in three years here, struggling with playing time and getting into it with Coach and this and that," Tucker said. "But my mom, my parents and my family and everybody, coaches telling me to just keep my head in it and eventually it will pay off. That's what I've just been trying to do. I've been trying to get more confident."
Vasquez and junior forward Dino Gregory set picks to free up Tucker, who was supposed to cut to the basket for a lob pass from Hayes. But that was before Maryland knew it would have to inbound the ball from midcourt, rather than 10 feet closer up the sideline. Tucker instead cut to the three-point line, where Hayes found him on the wing.
Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt said he gave his players two objectives: "Number one, don't let Vasquez touch the ball. Number two, nothing to the rim." The Yellow Jackets achieved both goals, yet still lost when Tucker's shot fell through the net.
Afterward, Williams was asked whether he'd ever seen Tucker hit a shot like that in practice.
Williams's response: "I saw him today."