"I could see it in their players' eyes during the warm-ups," Williams said after the Terps' 87-63 win in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"They had no fear coming into this game. They had nothing to lose against us. They were just thrilled to be here. It's a great way to play. A lot of fun."
The 'Zags did indeed have their fun. They got clobbered in the end, but not before they twice had the Terps wondering whether this game was destined to become one of those amazing, nonsensical upsets that mark the NCAA tournament every year. Every player on every highly seeded team wonders if they're going to be the ones who get hit this year, as Syracuse did against Richmond a few years ago, as Indiana did against Cleveland State, as Stanford did against Siena -- and as Oklahoma and Arizona did yesterday against Manhattan and Miami, Ohio.
If the Terps were feeling vulnerable, they never confessed to it. But if ever there was a day in the tournament that showed that everyone was vulnerable, it was yesterday. There was the Manhattan-Miami afternoon exacta. There was Penn taking Alabama into overtime. There was Kansas struggling for 30 minutes against Colgate. There was Texas taking out Oregon.
It was a huge day for the hardscrabble fraternity of double-digit seeds, and the 'Zags had ideas about adding their names to the list when they trailed the Terps by just five points midway through the first half and by just seven points with 15 minutes to play. "A couple of times I thought we had them put away," Williams said. "But they were tough. We had to play hard all the way." All the trappings of a major upset were there. The Terps had admitted that they knew nothing about Gonzaga except how to spell it. The 'Zags had the pro-underdog crowd raising a ruckus all night.
When the Zags' John Rillie and Jon Kinloch hit three-pointers on successive possessions midway through the first half, an 11-point Terps lead was suddenly down to five. The crowd roared as the teams traded baskets over the next three minutes. For a few minutes, the Terps' worst fears were being played out. They were vulnerable. The 'Zags believed. You could almost hear the Terps wondering the big question of the day: Us, too?
Ever so slowly, though, the Terps began to build another lead, their obvious physical superiority making a difference in sudden bursts.
In the next seven minutes they limited the 'Zags to one basket. Wayne Bristol came up huge off the bench for the Terps, hitting a three-pointer from the key and a free throw to bump the lead back to 11 points. A three-pointer from the corner by Duane Simpkins pushed the lead to 14.
Maryland, a team that has often struggled on defense away from home this season, had regained control of the game with defense.
When Joe Smith finally cut loose in the last minute of the first half, scoring on a dunk and a buzzer-beating jumper from the baseline, the Terps had a 40-25 lead. And when Exree Hipp scored the Terps' first five points of the second half, the lead was officially huge at 19 points.
But just when the 'Zags appeared to be gone-zaga, they suddenly scared up all the old ghosts that haunt the tournament. A three-pointer. A steal. A tip-in. Another three-pointer. They scored 10 points in a little over a minute, whacking into the Terps' lead, and then came the biggest stunner of all: Smith's fourth foul, sending him to the bench. The building was shaking from the noise, the Terps didn't have a friend in the world and the 'Zags believed again.
It always helps to be the better team, though. The Terps just had too many weapons. It didn't even matter that Smith was out, that he was having his worst game of the season, hamstrung by a collapsing defense. There was Simpkins making two three-pointers, Johnny Rhodes a third. There was Hipp slashing hard to the basket, basically unstoppable as he showed the authority that will be useful in the later rounds.
"I loved the way that Simpkins and Keith Booth took over as the game went on," Williams said. "It wasn't an easy game to play, but they really asserted themselves."
In the end, the crowd quieted down, then headed for the exits. Finally, for real, the 'Zags were gone-zaga. But not before they had made the Terps swallow hard.
"Gonzaga deserves all the credit in the world," Williams said. "They play hard and smart, and they do what they do very well." Next up, 11th-seeded Texas, which flat-out ran away from Oregon.
This heavy favorite business isn't easy.