The heads were down in the Maryland locker room again yesterday. No need. Because, even though Notre Dame walked out of Cole Field House with a 73-70 victory, there was no reason for anyone to apologize.
As is usually the case when these teams get together, this was a game for the fans -- intense, emotional basketball for 40 minutes with the final outcome in doubt until the end.
Notre Dame (12-3) earned this one. The 13th-ranked Irish made eight straight free throws in the final 1:53 to hold the No. 10 Terps off after surviving a first half in which the Terps shot 70 percent. In the early going Albert King was so hot that Digger Phelps' best defense might have been to pull a fire alarm.
"I thought it was a great game," Phelps said. "I think Maryland's got the kind of team that can go to the final four. I told Lefty (Driesell) that. Our kids just did a lot of good things when they had to today."
Kelly Tripucka, high man in the game with 25 points, made six foul shots down the stretch.That wasn't a surprise because Tripucka is used to having a few hundred hands being waved in his face when he's at the line on the road. What surprised Maryland were the two free throws Tom Sluby, the freshman from Gonzaga High, made with 13 seconds left and the Irish leading, 69-68.
"I knew I was going to make them," Sluby said. "I had confidence just like I did the other night when I went to the line at the end against San Francisco."
Give Phelps a nod, too. He baffled the Terps with his charging defenses much of the second half and he inserted Sluby into the game in the last minute, even though Sluby is shooting only 63 percent from the line this season.
"I couldn't believe it," said Buck Williams, superb with 20 points and 11 rebounds, although weakened by flu. "We fouled the right guy. He's a 63 percent shooter. I swear, I could not believe it."
Phelps could. "Tom's percentage is deceiving," he said. "I saw him make those shots at Gonzaga. When he shoots a foul shot in the first half he just goes up and shoots. In that situation (late in the game), he thinks, concentrates, then shoots. That's the difference."
The Terps (13-4) had ample opportunity to win this one. They led most of the first half and by five points early in the second half. Then they hit one of those dry spells that has plagued them this year and Notre Dame went on an 11-2 spree to lead, 55-49.
They widened the lead to 63-55 with six minutes left, before the Terps fought back, getting a three-point play from Williams and another loop from Williams. Williams followed his own shot, only to miss the ensuing free throw that could have cut the lead to two.Still, the Terps, who had split one-point games with the Irish the last two years, had their choice in the final minute.
They cut the lead to 65-64 when Graham stole the ball from Bill Varner and fed King with 2:51 left. Tripucka missed a one-and-one with 2:24 left but Williams returned the favor with 1:53 left. Tripucka was fouled rebounding and made both to make it 67-64 before a Williams jumper cut it to 67-66 with 1:36 left.
With 1:13 to play, point guard John Paxson was called for charging Greg Manning -- a questionable call, since Paxson appeared to be past Manning.
No matter. The Terps came down, and with the entire bench screaming for a timeout, Manning drove the left base line and shot one of his familiar off-balance, leaning jumpers with 55 seconds left.
"It was an easy shot," Manning said. "I was only about five feet out. I should have had it but it went off the back rim."
And, since all the Terps except for Williams seemed allergic to rebounds (the Irish outrebounded them, 21-9, the second half), Tripucks was there to grab Manning's miss.
"We wanted a timeout to set up a play inside for Buck," Driesell said. "We were trying to get their attention but I guess they couldn't hear with all the noise."
"I couldn't hear anything," Graham said, not explaining why he and his teammates failed to look to the bench for instructions in such a critical situation.
After Manning's miss, Tripucka was fouled by King and made both with 38 seconds left to make it 69-66, Irish. Graham hit a layup to cut it to one with 24 seconds left. The Terps called time, pressed the inbounds pass and fouled Sluby when the cool Paxson moved the ball up court and hit Sluby in the corner.
Graham hit another layup after Sluby's two shots with seven seconds left, making it 71-70. This time Orlando Woolrige inbounded to Tripucka, who held on until he was fouled with fi ve seconds left. He made both shots and it was over, Maryland having no timeouts to try and set something up.
"This whole thing is a mystery to me," a very upset Driesell said. "We're the same team, same coach, same players that nobody could beat in Cole Field House last year and now we've lost two in here this year. I don't understand it. We took an off-balance shot (Manning) at the end when we were down one and we fouled the wrong people, except for Sluby and he made his anyway."
Driesell even appeared concerned yesterday by the nonchalance of the crowd. He turned several times to the students behind him and waving his fist to try and get them going.
But the Irish, an experienced road team, hardly seemed rattled. They got excellent play from sophomore Tim Andree when Woolridge sat out for the last 15:36 of the first half with three fouls. They got 16 points from Jackson and a heady game from the very underrated Paxson. They got nine second-half points from Woolridge and the foul shots at the end.
Williams said: "I just hope that our day is coming."