Maryland's regular season ended in revenge and simple triumph yesterday, the Terrapins defeating Virginia, 87-72, at Cole Field House for what may have been their most important Atlantic Coast Conference victory of the season.
Maryland (17-12 overall, 6-8 in the ACC) glowered, scowled and elbowed its way past the Cavaliers (18-9, 7-7), who had handed the Terrapins their worst loss of the season, 70-49, on Jan. 19. It not only felt good, it put Maryland in excellent position for an NCAA tournament bid and showed how far the Terrapins have come in this troubled season.
After losing eight of 10 at one stretch and their first six ACC games, the Terrapins finished the regular season by winning six of their last eight, including victories over then-No. 1 North Carolina, No. 18 North Carolina State, and now the fourth-place team in the ACC. They also overcame the suspensions of Len Bias, Jeff Baxter, and John Johnson for breaking curfew, which led to a loss to Clemson.
"You think the NIT committee will take us now?" Coach Lefty Driesell said mockingly. " . . . The way we are playing, I think we may be a top 20 team. As for an NCAA bid, I think we're in, but it's all up to the committee. We're playing our best basketball, we've won six of eight, and if some of our boys had stayed in bed one night, we'd be seven of eight. What I'm thinking about now is winning the ACC tournament."
Maryland's next game will be Friday in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against Duke, North Carolina or Georgia Tech. That will give them a little time to enjoy yesterday's victory.
It was an afternoon of mind games and physical play as the Terrapins came in seeking to erase what had been their most embarrassing loss all season. Maryland started its seniors in the final home game of their careers, and Virginia started its "Blue" team, a squad that included four second-stringers, as a reward for their hard work all season. The Cavaliers came out in their blue uniforms, but then changed to the orange at halftime for a psychological lift.
"I was hoping they'd forget who we were," Virginia Coach Terry Holland said.
It didn't help; the Terrapins led, 44-34, at intermission and never trailed in the second half in taking as much as a 16-point lead. The Cavaliers never came closer than six with 11:04 to go, and Maryland responded by going on a 16-6 run over the next 6:07 to break it open.
Whether it was Bias rejecting 6-foot-11 Olden Polynice and pointing in his face, or Keith Gatlin going after Richard Morgan after being fouled by the Virginia guard, or Baxter hitting nine of 10 jumpers, Maryland made its intentions clear. The idea was to beat Virginia in the worst way possible after a loss in which they felt the Cavaliers had rubbed it in.
Bias, an All-America making his final appearance at Cole, scored a game-high 22 points to pull within seven of breaking the all-time Maryland career scoring record. He finished the regular season with 2,052 points, behind Albert King with 2,058, and should pass King Friday.
"They beat us bad, they embarrassed us, and we owed them something," Bias said. "I didn't think about the scoring record, I just wanted to win, that's all. I want to get to the NCAAs. . . . There was just a whole, whole, whole lot of difference since the last time we played them. . . . If we're not in the top 64 teams now, something is wrong."
Four Terrapins scored in double figures. Baxter made his final appearance at Cole a brilliant one, with 19 points. Senior Tom (Speedy) Jones also played well, with 15 points and five rebounds on seven-for-nine shooting. And Gatlin, normally easy going, was downright snarling as he added 18 points, six rebounds and 11 assists in his finest game of the season. Forward Derrick Lewis had just four points, but he added 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots.
"All I had on my mind was winning," Gatlin said. "We played terrible down there; we shouldn't have even gone. They rubbed it in, and this was a payback. We were going to do it to them if we had the chance."
Virginia also had four scorers in double figures, but the Cavaliers shot just 46 percent to Maryland's 66 percent. Polynice, guard Mel Kennedy and forward Andrew Kennedy scored 14 points each and forward Tom Sheehey had 12.
"It was Lenny Bias night," Holland said. "He did a great job, but the whole Maryland team did, too. I would certainly think this proves they belong in the NCAA tournament."
Virginia cut Maryland's 10-point halftime lead to six with 13:07 remaining. Morgan made a jumper, Terry Long missed for Maryland, and Polynice made a layup to cut it to 56-50 with 13:07 to go.
Maryland's man defense, however, held up. The Terrapins prevented one Virginia opportunity to cut it to four with 11:39 to go after Bias was called for a travel, when Jones blocked Calloway's layup attempt. Baxter then hit an 18-foot jumper to make it 60-52.
Sheehey scored on a layup to make it six again with 11:03 left, but that's when Maryland went on its 16-6 run. Jones scored eight straight, on a 15-footer, an eight-foot bank, a 16-footer and a tap-in. Bias added a three-point play off Lewis' blocked shot.
Tony Massenburg added two free throws, then Gatlin went to the line for a one-and-one after he was fouled by Morgan. Gatlin was called for a technical when he had to be restrained from going after Morgan for what he felt was an unnecessarily rough foul. After he calmed down, he made his two free throws to give the Terrapins their biggest lead up to that point, 76-60 with 4:18 to go. Virginia never came closer than 12 again.
In the teams' previous meeting, Polynice had made the mistake of blocking one of Bias' shots and pointing at him as he lay on the court. That image had stayed with the Terrapins for all of the ensuing weeks.
"I had to block his shot and put it in his face," Bias said. "I had to do it. After the last game, everyone had asked me why I let him do that to me."
Bias got his retribution on the most exciting sequence of the game for Maryland. It came in the final minutes of the first half, as Virginia took five shots, none of them going. In the midst of it all, Bias made a savage block of Polynice's short jumper and pointed mockingly at him. Then Lewis batted away Mel Kennedy's jumper to nearly half court, where Baxter picked it up and ran. He dribbled to the foul line and hung up a lingering alley-oop pass, which Jones slammed home.
The basket came with 4:08 left, made it 35-24 and brought Cole to a state of frenzy.
"They need this game," Polynice said. "They wanted it more than us. Maybe they used that incident to psych themselves. This may have been the deciding game for them."