For Maryland, season ends bittersweetly


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- He was leaning against a wall outside the Maryland locker room, a soda in one hand, a copy of the box score in the other. He looked pale and exhausted, as if he had run a marathon, or maybe seen a miracle. Someone mentioned the NCAA tournament. Gary Williams could not help smiling.

"You know, we would have been right there," he said. "Sixteen wins. Beat a bunch of NCAA teams. We'd be right there. We'd be on the bubble. If we were going to the ACC tournament next week, we'd have a lot to play for."

He shook his head. The reporters circling him shook their heads. Everyone giggled a little, Williams included. No one could really believe it. It was the punch line to a season that was almost laughably improbable: The Terps, a team of NCAA mettle. Are we joking? We are not.

They took out Virginia yesterday in yet another one of those you-hadda-see-it numbers. Their first half was lame and lamentable. They shot terribly. Couldn't dribble. Got out- hustled. But then suddenly they were running their offense and hitting their open shots and playing tough defense, and they caught up and went into overtime, and, bless them, they made their free throws and won the thing.

It gave them a 16-12 record that gets better when you consider they have beaten six teams -- four from the ACC -- that figure to make the NCAA draw. It does not make sense. It was not supposed to happen. Not with a team that was outmanned, on probation and supposedly without motivation -- and then lost its best player to a broken leg in the middle of the season. None of that mattered, though, at least not much.

"There were some moments when I really wondered if we could do much this year," Williams said. "When we lost down in Jacksonville in early December, and we had a better team, I wondered how in the world we were going to beat anyone in the ACC if we couldn't beat Jacksonville. But we kept playing. We may be the ugliest team in the world, but we keep playing. And we just kept getting better."

Much better. That's the germ. The common perception, as this season unfolded, was that this was a no-talent team getting by on hustle. Certainly, it did work hard. But the true secret of this season has been the improvement, one by one, of the players. It is a much different team than the one that began the season. A lot of players got a lot better.

Think about it. Cedric Lewis went from the end of the bench to a considerable presence in the lane. Garfield Smith found control and consistency in his broad-shoulders game. Kevin McLinton went from a fledgling to a mature point guard. Matt Roe became more than just a good jump shot.

"And Vince Broadnax," Williams said, shaking his head. "To me, Vince Broadnax sums this team up. What he has done is incredible. I can't explain it. He was afraid to even take a shot when we started practice. It's true. He passed up open 10-footers. But he wound up scoring 20 points in a couple of ACC games. It's just amazing."

In the beginning, see, points were the issue. You knew the Terps would play tough defense, but aside from Roe and Walt Williams, there didn't appear to be anyone capable of pushing the scoreboard along. By the end of the season, though, there were many choices. McLinton, Lewis, Smith and Broadnax all had big games in big wins. They just got better and better.

Even with all that, though, the loss of Walt Williams to a broken leg in January seemed devastating. This was a team walking a fine line between collapse and moderate success, a team that appeared incapable of overcoming such a loss. The Terps were listless in their next game against Virginia, and fell behind by 19 in the first half of the next game, at South Florida. They were feeling sorry for themselves.

In the second half of the South Florida game, though, the season permanently turned. Roe hit a couple of jumpers. Smith started working the lane. Lewis went wild, blocking shots all over the court. The Terps erased the big lead and won by six, and the players dumped a bucket of ice over their coach at the final buzzer.

"It was the biggest win of the season, even though it was a non-conference game," Gary Williams said. "I'm not sure we believed we could win a game without Walt, and in that game we found out we could. Against a pretty good team, too."

Confidence restored, the Terps went about the business of making their season. They scored 96 and 104 points to beat very capable teams from Georgia Tech and North Carolina State. They came from behind, sparked by Walt Williams' return, to beat Wake Forest on an impossibly loud Saturday in Cole Field House. They came from 13 down in the second half yesterday.

"We're going to get some great players to come to Maryland to play basketball one of these days," Williams said, "but they will have trouble surpassing what this team did. I'm not talking so much about wins and losses. I'm talking about establishing the right way to play the game. These kids kept showing up and working hard all year. It was a terrific season. I'm going to enjoy this summer."

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