The red-hot University of Maryland’s men’s basketball team punched its ticket for a return to the NCAA tournament with a rousing come-from-behind 89-87 victory over fifth ranked North Carolina. With 8 ACC victories and 22 wins overall (including victories over Carolina and Duke), there’s now no way we’ll miss out on the “big dance.”
The Terps overcame an early 13 point deficit to tie the game early in the second half. But the Tar Heels built the lead back up to 12 points with seven minutes to go. From there, Maryland outscored North Carolina 24-10.
D.J. Strawberry, whose successes I praised here, led the way with a career-high 27 points. Reserve forward Bambale Osby came off the bench to deliver 11 points and 9 rebounds in 18 minutes. But down the stretch it was the play of under-achieving seniors Mike Jones and Ikene Ibekwe that made the difference.
If Ibekwe can suddenly figure out how to stay out of foul trouble and Jones can finally become the consistent scoring threat he has always promised to be, the Terps could make a decent tournament run. But after two years of the NIT it’s great just to be heading back to the NCAA’s.
UPDATE: Perhaps now the idiots who have been booing Terps coach Gary Williams and blasting him on talk radio will melt back into the crowd. Williams left a great job at Ohio State, whose program he had built into a national powerhouse, to return to his alma mater. At the time, Maryland’s program lay in waste following the death of Len Bias and ensuing recruiting violations. The Terps couldn’t even play on television due to NCAA sanctions.
Even with his hands tied behind his back, Williams led Maryland back to respectability and then to national prominence. The process culminated in a national championship in 2002.
Williams had never been a top recruiter, at least by comparison to programs like Duke and North Carolina. It’s easy to suspect that top recruits are put off by his intensity and tendency to berate. But Williams was able to parlay his trips to the final four in 2001 and 2002 into back-to-back strong recruiting years. Unfortunately, and uncharacteristically for Williams, he was not able to get the best out of this crop of players, as a group. Now he seems to be returning to his old style of bringing in second-tier recruits like Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes, and Osby who will play his way. Recall that neither of the top two players on the championship team (Juan Dixon and Lonnie Baxter) was considered a top-50 recruit.
Most college basketball coaches start to slip when they reach a certain age. Williams will be 62 next month, and it’s possible that he’s slipped a bit, though clearly not in the intensity department. I’ll still take him to coach my basketball team, though, and in light of what he’s contributed to the University of Maryland those who have been booing him are, as I said, idiots.
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