After Allen’s dunk sent the Cassell Coliseum crowd into a frenzy, Maryland, which hadn’t trailed at any point in the second half, patiently worked the ball around the perimeter until Jordan Williams flashed into the post calling for the ball. As soon as he caught the pass into the post, he was double-teamed. Recognizing the defense collapsing on him, Williams quickly pitched the ball back to Cliff Tucker, who was wide open at the three-point line.
Tucker caught the ball in his shooting motion, released the shot smoothly and . . . missed.
As soon as the shot clanged off the rim and Virginia Tech grabbed the rebound, Raycom analyst Dan Bonner, watching Tucker run back downcourt on defense, hit the button that allowed him to talk to the TV truck. “Do you have a shot of Tucker after that miss?” he said off-air to producer Rob Reichley. “I think we just saw Maryland’s season in microcosm on that play.”
Wednesday morning, Bonner explained why he thought that moment was so significant. “I’m not saying it decided the game, because it didn’t,” he said. “But it was a key moment. Maryland needed to calm the crowd with a basket and they did everything right. Except they couldn’t make the shot. That’s been their season: always close against good teams but never ahead at the end.
“They have warning-track power.”
That may be the perfect description of this Maryland team, and the 91-83 loss to Virginia Tech was another example. The Terrapins got an outstanding game from freshman Terrell Stoglin and a good one from fellow freshman guard Pe’shon Howard. But the upperclassmen struggled, notably seniors Tucker and Adrian Bowie and junior Sean Mosley.
Maryland has been in every game it has played — with the exception of last month’s home loss to Virginia Tech — until the final minutes. The Terrapins have had multiple chances to beat quality teams. And, as of this moment, they haven’t hit the ball out of the ballpark.
“You knew going in you were going to have ups and downs,” Coach Gary Williams said Wednesday morning. “You lose the three seniors we lost [Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne] and you know your freshmen are going to have to contribute and you know it isn’t going to be easy.
“Last night we played hard. We played well enough to win. But Virginia Tech got nine offensive rebounds in the second half and we got none. That isn’t good enough. So you know what we have to do now? We have to try to beat N.C. State on Sunday. You know what we’d be doing today if we’d won? We’d be trying to beat N.C. State on Sunday.”
Williams knows a lot of people are writing off his team at 16-10, 5-6 in the ACC. This has become familiar February turf for him in recent years. From 1994 to 2004, a span in which Maryland made 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances, the Terrapins spent most of February playing for seeding, not for a spot in the bracket.
But in five of the last seven seasons, Maryland has found itself on uncertain NCAA tournament ground in February.
“Last year in early February people were calling me and saying, ‘Hey, Joe Lunardi doesn’t have you in the tournament,’ ” Williams said with a laugh, referencing ESPN’s bracketologist. “I guess I could have worried about that. Or I could try to win games. We won seven in a row, finished tied for first in the ACC. I don’t know if Joe ever had us in the tournament. I do know we played in it.
“You can’t just say, ‘I’m not paying any attention to all that,’ because you know your players are. They hear what’s out there and what people are saying to them. It’s my job to tell them I understand that, but they can’t worry about it. They have to find a way to win the next game. There’s no way I would ever tell my players this is a bridge season [as Louisville’s Rick Pitino did earlier this season with his team] because there’s no such thing. Your job is to win games this year. Next year is in the back of your mind, but from October to March you worry about this season.”
Williams has tried everything possible to get contributions from his three seniors: Bowie, Tucker and Dino Gregory. All have had moments — good and bad. Williams has moved Bowie off the point and Tucker to the role of sixth man to try to take pressure off them. He has tried to work the freshmen in gradually so the seniors will still feel like it is their team. But the time for massaging the egos of the older players has passed. Maryland has five regular season games left and must win at least four to have a chance to make the tournament as an at-large team. Chances are both Stoglin and Howard will play major minutes from here on out.
“They have to play more,” Williams said. “They’ve earned the right to play more.”
One person who doesn’t think Maryland’s season is over is Bonner, who has been involved with ACC basketball since his playing days at Virginia in the mid-1970s. “I look at Maryland and what I see is potential,” he said. “The freshmen are very good. So is Jordan Williams. Sean Mosley is a mystery to me right now and probably to Gary, too.
“One thing people forget is that Gary Williams isn’t a good coach, he’s a great coach. He’ll wring every bit of that potential out of these guys. Whether that will be in time to get them into the tournament this year, I don’t know. But last I looked they aren’t handing out bids today and Joe Lunardi isn’t going to be the one handing them out. I haven’t seen anyone in the ACC they can’t play with. To me, that means anything can happen between now and March 13th.
“One of these nights, that shot [Tucker’s] is going to go in.”
During the nine-year stretch from 1995 to 2003, when making the tournament was almost a given, Maryland failed to win at least 10 ACC games during the regular season just twice (8-8 in 1995-96 and 9-7 in 1996-97). Barring a sweep of their last five games, this will be the sixth time in eight seasons the Terrapins have failed to win 10 ACC games and could also be the sixth time in that span they failed to finish with a winning record in conference play.
“If I focused on that I’m sure I would be worn out by now,” Williams said. “But that’s not what I do. I tell the players in October that they’re about to run a marathon. I never talk about postseason, just the regular season. I tell them we’re going to step off some curbs wrong, roll some ankles, take a few falls. But the key is to keep going and get to that finish line standing up.”
The regular season finish line is March 5, when Maryland hosts Virginia. That is also Williams’s 66th birthday. He and his team are in an all-out sprint now. They can’t afford any more rolled ankles or falls.
And they could use some wind at their backs starting on Sunday.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.