DENVER - The journey ended fittingly for a team that built its identity by coming back to life when all appeared to be lost.
Three weeks ago, the Maryland Terrapins looked finished, then somehow regained a spark that sent them on a remarkable ride into the postseason. Yesterday, in a second-round NCAA tournament matchup, the Terps trailed defending champion Syracuse by 16 points in the middle of the second half and were down by seven with 29 seconds left.
Admit it. You thought fourth-seeded Maryland was done. Not the Terps. They stubbornly believed they would be playing in the Sweet 16 round of the Phoenix Regional this week, and it wasn't until freshman guard D.J. Strawberry drove the length of the court, missed a one-handed, baseline runner, then missed a short follow-up at the buzzer, that Maryland officially went down, 72-70.
The loss left Maryland's players dazed in a somber locker room. After stringing together a season-long, six-game winning streak, after coming into the ACC tournament as a sixth seed with all of their brash youth and bringing the trophy back to College Park for the first time in 20 years, then flying into the NCAA tournament as one of the nation's more dangerous teams, the Terps finally were eliminated.
"I can't even describe how bad this feels," said Strawberry, as he replayed his back-to-back attempts to force overtime, which came after Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara made one of two foul shots with 7.5 seconds left and Strawberry received the ensuing inbounds pass.
"Coach told me if we were down by three, try to get [freshman guard] Mike Jones a [three-point] shot. If we're down by two, get the ball up the court as fast as I can and go to the basket," added Strawberry, who threw up a five-foot, follow-up after teammate Travis Garrison's rebound was knocked loose under the basket. "I just couldn't get it to go down."
The way Maryland (20-12) went out on its shield, scratching and clawing in its signature fashion, left Gary Williams as upbeat as a losing coach could be in such a setting.
"This is not a wake. We have a great basketball team. I'm really proud of our guys," said Williams, who wound up his 15th season at Maryland in riveting fashion. "These are good kids. They don't quit. I've never had a team that has made as many comebacks as this team. I've never been in as many close games as this team. Just another one-pointer today. We just ran out of time, that's all."
What was such an inexperienced team doing with a chance to steal this game from fifth-seeded Syracuse (23-7), which had several players on the floor in crunch time who had helped the Orangemen win the NCAA title a year ago?
For the entire first half and a good chunk of the second, Maryland was clueless in the face of the Orangemen's vaunted 2-3 zone. The Terps made only seven field goals in the first 20 minutes.
The Terps trailed 32-22 at halftime after shooting 25.9 percent, committing 11 turnovers and playing as if they were in quicksand. They were down 54-38 with 13 minutes left.
Maryland had clamped down defensively on sophomore guard Gerry McNamara (13 points), who was fresh off a 43-point effort against Brigham Young. But they had no answer for Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick, who tired down the stretch but scored a game-high 26 points.
"I thought he had 40, the way he was playing," Williams said.
Maryland's leader, sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, had little to offer from the start and finished with seven points before fouling out with 29 seconds left. Sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley took only three shots and finished with four points. The Terps could not gain control of the tempo, and still were in a 64-54 hole with 4:42 left.
But Maryland, which sought to cut into the Syracuse lead by turning the second half into a foul-shooting contest, nearly broke through.
Syracuse missed six of its last 10 free throws in the final three minutes, sat on the ball and stopped feeding Warrick down the stretch, and produced huge blunders late. Maryland, which climbed back by making 19 of its first 24 free-throw attempts after halftime, missed five of its last seven foul shots.
Still, the Orangemen could not silence Maryland. After Jamar Smith cut the Syracuse lead to 71-66 with 23.6 seconds left, Syracuse center Craig Forth missed two free throws.
Syracuse then helped Maryland when guard Josh Pace fouled Mike Jones as he launched a deep three-point shot. Jones promptly made two of three shots to cut the lead to 71-68, and Caner-Medley came up with Jones' miss and fed Strawberry, who drove for a layup to make it 71-70 with nine seconds left.
The Terps then fouled the usually reliable McNamara, who missed his first attempt and made the second, which set up Strawberry's last dash.
"I'm going to be playing somewhere else next year, but I'm going to miss playing with my teammates and being in front of all of those Maryland fans. I wanted to accomplish more," said Smith, who finished his final NCAA game by tying Garrison with a team-high 16 points and adding eight rebounds.
Gilchrist, slumped over at his locker in exhaustion, said the fire is already burning for next season.
"It was a long journey to get here. We had our peaks and valleys," Gilchrist said. "It just feels like the end of the road, and this [loss] is going to be on my mind for a long time. All the way until the final buzzer went off, I thought we had a chance to win the national championship."
Williams said he was puzzled by Maryland's lack of fire early, which beset the Terps on many occasions earlier this season. He attributed part of it to the Syracuse zone.
"In the first half, there was no emotion. We were just flat," Williams said. "They could have gone home after halftime, but they stayed. ... If anything characterizes this year's team, it's that determination not to quit. We didn't always get the wins, but we did some great things because of that."
Gist 10-15 2-6 23, Osby 8-10 5-7 21, Hayes 2-8 0-0 6, Vasquez 2-10 2-2 8, Bowie 0-0 0-0 0, Milbourne 1-4 0-0 3, Dupree 2-4 0-0 4, McAlpin 0-2 0-0 0, Tucker 3-5 1-4 7, Burney 0-0 0-0 0, Neal 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-58 10-19 72.
Greene 7-16 0-0 16, Ongenaet 4-6 0-0 8, Onuaku 7-12 0-2 14, Flynn 8-11 4-6 23, Harris 5-13 9-12 19, Jackson 0-1 2-2 2, Jardine 3-9 0-0 6. Totals 34-68 15-22 88.
Halftime--Syracuse 40-38. 3-Point Goals--Maryland 6-19 (Vasquez 2-6, Hayes 2-7, Milbourne 1-1, Gist 1-3, McAlpin 0-1, Tucker 0-1), Syracuse 5-13 (Flynn 3-4, Greene 2-5, Ongenaet 0-1, Harris 0-1, Jardine 0-2). Fouled Out--Gist. Rebounds--Maryland 32 (Gist 11), Syracuse 40 (Onuaku 14). Assists--Maryland 21 (Vasquez 8), Syracuse 21 (Flynn 7). Total Fouls--Maryland 17, Syracuse 15. Technical--Maryland Bench. A--14,768.