If the pressure of the game weren’t enough, there was also the pressure of living up to the last 10 years. Over and over the Maryland players had heard it the last two weeks: Could they keep the streak of NCAA tournament appearances going? Could they successfully follow in the recent tradition of Joe Smith, Keith Booth, Steve Francis, Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and Lonny Baxter? Could they win a game everybody thought they should win, even though they were playing their border rival, a Virginia team that was on something of a roll? Isn’t that the ultimate irony? For 15 years Gary Williams worked to save Maryland basketball, then to build a program capable of sustained excellence, and here was a young team, two years after a national championship, feeling the weight of this new tradition?
“It wasn’t just the pressure of the game,” Gary Williams would say later, “it was hearing it all the time.”
They weren’t just concerned with slowing down Todd Billet and J.R. Reynolds; they were concerned with being on the proverbial bubble, with winning enough games to get in, with keeping an expectant community happy for at least the next two weeks.
“You could see it,” Williams said of the two opponents his players were battling last night. “The first half was a good example of that.”
It wasn’t until 47 seconds into the second half when Williams and his players were so far down — 11 points to be exact — that they collectively said, “To hell with it,” and played with the passion and purpose that carried them to a 70-61 victory, a sixth-place finish in the powerful ACC, and presumably an at-large berth to the NCAAtournament. It was such a relief for all of them, Williams included, to win this game and get back to the Big Dance that begins in 11 days, that Williams uncharacteristically danced a jig afterward. He was jumping up and down in a way he never did when his team advanced to two Final Fours. “Excuse that end-of-game thing,”Williams said afterward. Nearly whispering, he said, “I think I pulled a hamstring.”
See, this is what happens when you build the kind of program Maryland has. You go to the Final Four in back-to-back years, you win the national title, you start chesting up to Duke and North Carolina and Kansas, and the notion of a year away from the Big Action makes you crazy and threatens to throw your team into depression.
Maryland was awful that first half. You’d be hard pressed to find a time over the past 10 years when Maryland has played a worse half of basketball.
It’s not like Virginia’s first-half video should be sent straight to the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Cavaliers shot only 32 percent before intermission. Billet, who has become Mr. Clutch as of late, missed seven of his eight shots in the first half (and 13 of 14 overall). But Virginia consistently beat the Terrapins up and down the floor, especially the final five minutes of the half when they turned a three-point deficit into a 34-27 halftime lead. “We were standing around that first half, and we almost paid for it,” Williams said. “I should have tried something long before we did.”
The Terrapins made only 28.6 percent of their first-half shots. They were outrebounded (28-25) on their home court. When Reynolds scored a pair of easy baskets off unforced Maryland turnovers in the first 47 seconds of the second half, the Cavaliers found themselves ahead 38-27, and Williams found himself calling timeout. Clearly the halftime message fell on deaf ears. And at the same time, Virginia played at least with the same sort of purpose they had demonstrated in beating three ranked teams — Wake Forest, North Carolina and Georgia Tech — over the last four games. Suddenly, the notion of firing Coach Pete Gillen wasn’t the No. 1 topic regarding Virginia basketball.
But that timeout, with 19 minutes 17 seconds left in the second half, seemed to have accomplished everything. It was then the Terrapins finally understood a loss here, at home against an unranked team one week into March, would probably send them home for the winter, short of some miraculous showing in Greensboro next week in the toughest conference tournament in America. Mike Krzyzewski has taken to calling the quarterfinal round, “Bloody Friday.”
“We had nothing to say about X’s and O’s in that timeout,” Williamssaid afterward. “I could see the looks on their faces. I was trying to change the body language.” Williams told his players in that critical moment, “We’re too good to play like that.” And they were a different team after that timeout.
Down 11 points with Comcast Center in full fret, Maryland cut the deficit to three points in a hurry. Even with the energy back, every trip down the floor was a struggle against Virginia’s box-and-one defense. It was a struggle, but each and every Maryland player seemed up to it. John Gilchrist, at 6 feet 2, grabbed three offensive rebounds off teammates’ missed free throws. He and Chris McCray and Nik Caner-Medley were flying everywhere, grabbing missed shots and loose balls. They were back to playing as hard as ever. And two dunks — Jamar Smith’s thunderous dunk over Virginia’s GaryForbes and McCray’s steal and reverse jam to tie the game at 42 — sent a lightning bolt through everybody in the joint.
“I asked him,” Williams said, “if he got three points for that dunk. Maybe they changed the rule before the game. He made it about as hard as he could have made it.”
It was a metaphor for the whole team really. They made it hard on themselves, but not before Maryland’s recent successes made it hard for them. It’s a wonderful dilemma as it turns out, trying to live up to one’s own new standard of achievement. Virginia would love to have such a dilemma right now, instead of needing at least one victory and probably two to get into the NCAA tournament. But Maryland is also relatively free now, even temporarily, to let it fly and let it flow. The Terrapins are young, but talented enough to surprise some good teams in the tournament. They’re playing with house money now. Getting in is about all that can be reasonably expected of this team. The rest is the cherry on top.