Hey, coach: Don't worry, don't hurry


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The problem wasn't the missing coach as much as the missing forwards. Heaven knows what evil thoughts were running through Gary Williams' head as he watched Keith Booth and Exree Hipp disappear on his hospital-room TV yesterday.

Williams' condition was upgraded from fair to good, so he probably jumped out of bed, screamed at the TV and terrorized his nurses the way he does referees. Someone lock the doors of Washington Adventist Hospital. Williams should relax, skip the ACC tournament and return for the NCAAs.

Booth and Hipp need to do just the opposite, with or without Williams. Booth drew two fouls in the first 3:50 yesterday and finished with three points. Hipp went scoreless in the second half and finished with seven. Together, they combined for two baskets -- one fewer than Virginia freshman Norman Nolan.

Joe Smith was the only Maryland starter to reach double figures in the 92-67 loss to Virginia. It was as disturbing a defeat as one could imagine for a team that was playing for its first ACC regular-season title since 1980. And Williams probably couldn't have prevented it, no matter what his ego might tell him.

Of the Maryland starters, only Hipp conceded that something was missing under Billy Hahn. "The emotional drive is not there," Hipp said. "Gary can fire us up in the huddle, get us really motivated, pick the right time to call timeout and stop a run."

Still, Hipp was quick to add, "Coach Hahn is doing a great job. We can't complain. We've got to come out ready. We had no right not to be fired and ready to play. There's nothing Gary could have done about that. It's something we need to do as a team."

Especially now, in March, with Smith needing more help, not less. Virginia used four different players to defend him yesterday. As coach Jeff Jones put it: "This gave us 20 fouls to use on him. We wanted to play physical and keep him from catching the ball. We wanted to wear him down."

Few teams are as physical as Virginia, but if no one else steps up for Maryland, ganging up on Smith makes for an effective game plan. Such was the case yesterday. Booth and Hipp were no factor. And Virginia guards Harold Deane and Curtis Staples outscored Duane Simpkins and Johnny Rhodes, 37-16.

What could Williams do to help? Probably not much. A little perspective is in order, for the coach with pneumonia, for everyone. Maryland almost never escapes at University Hall, where it has lost four straight years and eight of the past 10. What's more, yesterday was Senior Day. Virginia was particularly inspired.

The way the ACC tournament sets up, the Terps probably were better off losing, anyway. As the No. 3 seed, they'll play Florida State in their first game rather than the Duke-North Carolina State winner. After that, they'd probably play North Carolina rather than Virginia.

Duke might have gone 2-14 in the conference, yet it remains a team to fear, a team capable of an upset. Remember, Maryland needed a tip-in by Smith to beat Duke Wednesday. On the other hand, it has defeated Florida State this season by 13 and 15 points.

The crowd of 8,379 taunted the sixth-ranked Terps yesterday, chanting, "Over-rated! Over-rated!" One fan held a sign saying, "Gary bails, go Cavs." Afterward, Simpkins said: "I think he wants to rush back. Even if we did win the game today, he'd be trying to rush back."

But for once, Williams should put basketball second and take care of himself first. Even if the Terps lost to Florida State, they'd probably draw no worse than a No. 3 seed in an NCAA regional. At that point, they'd still be 23-7. The NCAA tournament committee wouldn't forget them.

Of course, winning the ACC tournament could mean a No. 1 seed in Baltimore, but what are the chances of that happening, even with Williams? The Terps aren't exactly road warriors -- they've lost at North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Virginia. The tournament is in Greensboro, N.C.

The last thing Williams needs is to suffer a relapse trying to ensure that Maryland faces a No. 16 seed rather than a No. 14 in the first round of the NCAAs. His system is in place. And his players shouldn't need his special motivational ability -- it's March, for crying out loud.

"I would tell him to take it easy and get better," Smith said. "I don't know what condition he's in. But it's not something to play around with. Everyone knows how pumped he gets on the sidelines. If he comes back too soon, the excitement might get to him again."

Smith and others noted that Hahn is just as fiery as Williams during games, and refused to cite his absence as an excuse. Indeed, Hahn probably misses Williams more than the players do. He was emotional in his post-game news conference, reminding everyone that Maryland had just played for the ACC title.

"I wish Gary could have been here today," Hahn said. "When we came here six years ago, we had this in mind. The sad thing about the last two games is that he couldn't be here. That hurts me. I just hope he can be part of the rest of the season. He deserves it."

He certainly does, but not if it means risking his own health. One more wake-up call such as yesterday's, and the Terps will come to realize how badly they need Williams. It would be the perfect script for tournament time. A coach returning to rejuvenate his players. And his players appreciating him that much more.

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