What an exhilarating weekend for the University of Maryland basketball team and its fans. Last Sunday, the Terrapins punched their ticket to an eleventh straight NCAA tournament with an uninspiring, painful to watch victory over a mediocre University of Virginia team. The win gave Maryland the sixth seed in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, which the Terps, despite their rich basketball history, had only won twice (some background: (a) unlike many post-season tournaments, this one is considered a very big deal by fans and (b) the tournament is almost always played in the state of North Carolina, where Maryland’s main conference rivals are also located). With back-to-back-to-back “road” games against top 20 teams looming, no one gave Maryland a chance to win the tournament this year. Why would a team with a losing conference record that plays only one guy who isn’t a freshman or sophomore succeed where the 2002 national champions, for example, failed?
On Friday, Maryland played Wake Forest, the conference’s third place team. Free from the pressure of qualifying for the NCAA, Maryland looked like a different team, one with an actual offense and some ability to convert free throws. Even so, the Terps barely pulled off the upset. About sixteen hours later, they took the floor against North Carolina State, the ACC’s second place team. State jumped out to a 21 point lead and led by 19 at the half. But playing Coach Gary Williams’ patented full-court press, Maryland erased the entire deficit in about seven minutes, and held on to win. It was the greatest come from behind win in the long history of the ACC tournament.
Today, Maryland played its nemesis, Duke. The Blue Devils were looking for their sixth straight ACC tournament crown, but were out of sorts in the first half and fell eleven points behind. Duke, however, has a long history of coming from behind against Maryland. In 2001, they came back from eleven down in the final minute of a regular season game against us, and later that year, in the NCAA final four, came back from more than twenty down. True to form, Duke erased nearly all of the deficit by half time and surged to an eleven point lead of their own with under five minutes left. But Maryland turned up the defensive pressure and somehow managed to take the game into overtime.
In overtime, Maryland was forced to play without two starters (who had fouled out) and its top reserve (who was injured). Mike Grinnon, who normally plays only in “garbage” time (and whose hero is Rush Limbaugh), was pressed into action. After Maryland gained a late lead, Duke deliberately fouled Grinnon, who sank both shots. A few foul shots later, Maryland had won the tournament for the first time since 1984, about the time most of its current players were born. Then, the tournament MVP was the late Len Bias. This time it was sophomore guard John Gilchrist.
So, should the NCAA field fear the turtle? Probably not. This remains an inexperienced and flawed team. And the Terps may tighten up again now that expectations are running high. But after this weekend, anything Maryland accomplishes in the NCAA tournament is pure gravy.
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