March 11, 2008
COLLEGE PARK If Maryland doesn't make the NCAA Tournament, its players can point to a pair of home games in which they blew big leads.
Maryland led Virginia Tech by 14 points and Clemson by 20 and somehow managed to lose both contests, much to the dismay of sellout crowds at the Comcast Center. Had the Terrapins finished off the Hokies and Tigers, they would have reached 20 overall victories and 10 wins in the ACC. Those are considered the magic numbers for earning an NCAA berth.
Instead, Maryland finished 18-13 and 8-8 after dropping its regular-season finale at Virginia. The Terps had lost four of their last five, and their postseason hopes were on life support as a result.
No one would have envisioned this on-the-bubble scenario after Maryland reeled off six wins in seven games against ACC foes. The Terps were one of the hottest teams in the country, and their March Madness ticket seemed a formality.
Then Maryland hit a wall at the worst possible moment, with back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and Miami sounding some alarm bells.
The Terps seemed to right the ship by going to Winston-Salem and playing with tremendous focus and purpose in a gutsy 74-70 victory over Wake Forest. However, the team had trouble finishing that game, as well, failing to score a field goal in the final five minutes and needing several defensive stops down the stretch in order to escape.
A win over a well-regarded Clemson club on Senior Night probably would have sealed an NCAA berth, or at least taken the pressure off and left Maryland needing only one win in the ACC Tournament. For 30 minutes, it appeared that the Terps would register a signature victory in an emotional, electric atmosphere before a noisy crowd at the Comcast Center.
Senior forward James Gist led the way as Maryland built a 20-point lead with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game. Then it somehow all fell apart. Holding a seemingly comfortable 59-39 advantage at the 11:23 mark, the Terrapins just stopped playing. They became lethargic on defense and tentative on offense. They stopped attacking, stopped running the flex and basically held the ball for the full shot clock on every possession.
In football terms, it was as if Maryland went to a prevent defense. Clearly, the players felt the game had been decided and were simply just trying to stall away the remaining time.
"I think we just kind of laid back, thinking we had it won," said Gist, who scored just four points in the second half of his final home game. "We were up 20, and we just kind of gave that game away."
When Terrence Oglesby drained a long three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left to complete the miraculous comeback and give Clemson a 73-70 victory, the Comcast Center became eerily silent. It was as if the life had been sucked out of the building. Stunned fans just stood there, trying to fathom what they had witnessed.
It wasn't quite as shocking a collapse as the infamous 2001 "Gone in 54 Seconds" loss to Duke, when Maryland blew a 10-point lead in the blink of an eye, but it was just as devastating. That largely was due to the impact the outcome had on the Terps' postseason hopes, with a win almost guaranteeing an NCAA berth and a loss (particularly the way it happened) delivering a death knell to their chances.
Ultimately, the big question is why Maryland has such a hard time finishing off games. Williams said the first half against Clemson may have been the best the team played all season. How does one explain the Terps reverting to some of their worst basketball over the final 11 minutes? It was a similar story in the hurtful loss to Tech, with Maryland alternately playing great and terribly.
"I think as a team we get relaxed when we get a big lead," Gist said. "We don't run plays as hard, we don't play defense as tough, and that gives teams hope. When you are up by that much, you have to eliminate hope."
WHO'S THE ODD MAN OUT?
It will be interesting to see what personnel changes occur in the Maryland program prior to next season. All that is certain is that seniors Gist and Bambale Osby will depart, and that recruits Gus Gilchrist and Sean Mosley will arrive.
No one knows what will happen beyond that, although it seems almost certain that there will be other comings and goings. Most observers believe that at least one of the freshman big men will transfer, although the identity of that player changes with the wind.
Originally, the rumors centered on redshirt freshman Jerome Burney, who remained glued to the bench during his second season in the program. Injuries forced Burney to redshirt in 2006-07, and the 6-9, 222-pounder seemingly had made no progress this season.
However, Burney's sudden emergence as a valuable contributor probably makes it less likely that he will leave. The Atlanta native had a break-out performance against Miami, then backed that up with an impressive outing versus Clemson. He threw down a couple of vicious dunks in scoring six points and showed tremendous timing in blocking four shots while playing a career-high 16 minutes.
The next name on the rumor mill was freshman Dino Gregory, a classic tweener who has played in just 14 games this season. The Baltimore native has not played a lick during the ACC portion of the schedule, and the whispers coming from the coaches are that he does not work hard enough in practice.
Gregory is a power forward stuck in a small forward's body. He is listed at 6-7, but he may be a shade shorter, and he certainly doesn't possess the perimeter skills you look for in a wing forward.
Gregory was a power forward at Mount St. Joseph High, and his game has not changed. He's most comfortable working the lane, scoring off medium-range jump shots or offensive rebounds. He either needs to add weight and strength in order to be an undersized four man, or improve his ball skills and extend his range in order to make the switch to the three.
The latest word is that Shane Walker could be the odd man out, perhaps for off-the-court reasons. Stay tuned.
Maryland has been recruiting junior college forward Ken Bowman, who took a visit to the Comcast Center this season and subsequently announced his intention to matriculate in College Park. However, that commitment was premature in the sense that the Terps may not have a scholarship available.
Maryland also accepted a commitment from lightning-quick guard Bobby Maze, who also plays at Hutchinson. Maze, who grew up in Prince George's County and attended nearby Suitland High, began his college career at Oklahoma. He's not a done deal for the Terps, either. His academic credentials are shaky, and he still has work to do in order to get accepted into the university.