Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
He followed Steve Francis to Maryland, then played behind the beloved Juan Dixon for three years, and seemed destined to play in the shadow of two unforgettable shooting guards. But Drew Nicholas has his own moment now. Maryland was all but counted out, down on one knee with the ref's count at nine. Flying upcourt with less than five seconds left and counting, Nicholas pushed off one foot, his left, and let a shot roll off his fingers a fraction of a second before the clock hit :00. Miraculously, Nicholas had landed the winning haymaker. The champion had gotten off the mat to score a knockout.
"I thought it was going to come up short, to tell you the truth," Nicholas said, still breathless and stunned over what had just happened. "But I guess my momentum was carrying me closer to the basket than I realized. You're not supposed to have tunnel vision, but the truth is I didn't see any of my teammates. I jumped off one foot. I wouldn't necessarily call that a shot. . . . It's March Madness. Stuff like that happens."
Defeat had seemed so certain when North Carolina Wilmington made two free throws to take a 72-71 lead with five seconds left. It appeared Maryland had lost its championship to two garage door shooters, smooth strokers, kids who can never be guarded closely enough, particularly in a zone defense. The names John Goldsberry and Brett Blizzard would have haunted Maryland basketball for years. All they did was run and cut and slide off screens until they found six inches, then they buried three-pointer after three-pointer. Goldsberry did something no player had done in NCAA history; he hit all eight of his three-point attempts. As new-fangled and as hip-hop as basketball appears to be these days, there's still nothing as effective or demoralizing as two shooters on an unstoppable roll.
But Nicholas outdid them in the end, because his last was best. "It gave us life," he said. "We get to play again. How bad would it have been if we had chartered back to College Park tonight?"
The dream of making a third straight run to the Final Four lives on because Maryland rallied from five down after leading by 10 points. But that 57-47 lead melted away primarily because Blake and his backup, John Gilchrist, fouled themselves to the bench early in the second half. The champs had to call on third-string point guard Andre Collins, who had to play the first significant postseason minutes of his career in a single-elimination situation. And the offense, which had just started to cook, sputtered the rest of the night.
Making matters worse, Maryland played the same way it did against Virginia and North Carolina in two recent losses. The Terps missed free throws that could have provided a bigger cushion earlier, got outhustled for loose balls and rebounds by a smaller and less experienced team, committed silly turnovers, blew at least four easy layups and, in general, looked smaller than the moment. "We could have dunked the ball," Nicholas said, shaking his head. "But guys were trying to lay them in. . . . They were hitting the back rim. It was looking like one of those nights."
Oh, it was one of those nights alright, like the night Tyus Edney rushed all the way downcourt in 3.9 seconds to beat Missouri. "That's my favorite one," Nicholas said. "Come to think of it, wasn't that a first-round game? After Edney's shot, UCLA went on to win the championship, right?"
Yes, UCLA did just that. "Whoever's going to be champ," Nicholas said, "has to go through a game like that."
Right again. There aren't any pretty games in this tournament, except perhaps for the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. There's no comfort level, no blowouts, no time for working out the kinks. And Maryland will surely want to come up with a tighter effort Sunday against Xavier.
One blunder nearly turned the whole night completely sour. With a seemingly comfortable six-point lead and approximately eight minutes to play, Maryland allowed Wilmington to grab three offensive rebounds. And the third one resulted in a game-changing basket, Goldsberry's three-pointer that made it 62-59 and seemed to damage Maryland's spirit considerably. When Tahj Holden missed for Maryland and Blizzard countered with another three-pointer to tie the game at 62-all with 6:10 left, it felt as if the Seahawks were already ahead.
Even Blake's return to the lineup during a timeout with 6:08 to play didn't immediately change anything for Maryland. Blizzard threw in another three-pointer, then another, and suddenly North Carolina Wilmington was ahead by five, 68-63.
Those of us who thought the Terps might storm Wilmington were so terribly off base.
Maryland's players had time off, great practices, spirited instruction (what a nice way to call Williams screaming in their grills) and certainly plenty of soul searching. There ought to be little outside pressure beyond the first round because they lost four seniors from the championship team and nobody (beside your friendly neighborhood columnist) picked them to do much of anything in the Season After. Fact: Maryland earned the lowest seed (No. 6 in the South) of any defending champ since 1986. The Terps ought to act as if they're playing with house money, grip it and rip it, let it flow free and easy.
Yes, Maryland can still go deep into the tournament, and it's within the team's control.