OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Maryland Terrapins had talked about putting together a six-game winning streak in the NCAA tournament. They had dreamed about going to the Final Four. And All-American Joe Smith had hoped to cap off his own magical season -- and perhaps his college career -- with a national championship in Seattle.
The winning streak is over.
The dream of the school's first Final Four is dashed.
And the season, if not Smith's college career as well, has ended.
It all came to a screeching halt last night at the Oakland Coliseum in a 99-89 defeat to Connecticut in the NCAA West Regional semifinals. While the third-seeded Terps will go home to College Park to lick their wounds, and Smith to contemplate his future, the Huskies move on to tomorrow's regional final against top-ranked UCLA. The top-seeded Bruins easily dispatched Mississippi State, 86-67, earlier in the evening.
Smith finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds, but was hardly a factor until Maryland (26-8) fell way behind. Senior forward Donny Marshall led Connecticut (28-4) with 27 points, and sophomore guard Ray Allen scored 18 and pulled down 11 rebounds. Junior guard Johnny Rhodes also scored 22 for the Terps.
For Maryland, the game followed a painfully similar script to last year's Sweet 16 defeat to Michigan. Maryland seemed tentative, fell behind by as many as 14 in the first half and made a couple of early runs at the Huskies in the second half before succumbing down the stretch.
"I feel very proud of this team getting 26 wins," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terps fell one victory shy of tying the school record and making the Final Eight for the first time in 20 years. "Three years ago, we won two games in the ACC. I think with Connecticut's quickness, we looked slow tonight. But they've made a lot of good teams look slow."
Unable to get the ball inside to Smith for most of the first half with the Huskies sagging back in a 2-3 zone, the Terps were resigned to fire away from the outside. Maryland missed 20 of its first 30 shots. Smith took a hard spill with less than 11 minutes gone, picked up three personals in the first 15 and didn't get into the flow until the second half.
Though the Terps would cut a 44-30 deficit with 2:44 left in the half to 49-41 by halftime, and then would score the first four points in the second half as well, Connecticut never folded. Leading 55-49 after a hook by Maryland's Keith Booth, the Huskies went on a 15-2 run sparked by Marshall and Allen.
But Maryland began misfiring again, especially from three-point range. The Terps wound up shooting four of 20 on threes, including two of 14 in the second half. Conversely, the Huskies were 6-for-14, including three of three by Marshall. Rhodes and Simpkins were a combined 3-for-10, and reserves Mario Lucas ** and Wayne Bristol were 0-for-5.
"I always thought we'd come back," said Williams, recalling the way his team had made similar frenzied comebacks, albeit several ill-fated ones, the past two years. "Even with four minutes left when we were down 10, I thought we could hit a three and force a turnover. But we didn't hit the shots we needed to."
Said Donny Marshall, who should have an big matchup with UCLA's Ed O'Bannon tomorrow, "If they were going to beat us, then they were going to beat us by going over the top of our zone. But we didn't want them to beat us by going inside. I thought we did a good job on Joe Smith. We also made him play defense and he got into foul trouble. Playing with three fouls isn't easy."
Smith wound up 10 of 17 from the field, but that came after missing often and early. Aside from the three early fouls and the bruised hip, which came after he blocked his only shot, Smith had only six points and three rebounds at halftime.
The two Connecticut centers, Travis Knight and Eric Hayward, took advantage of Smith's fouls, combining for 27 points and nine rebounds on 10-for-11 shooting. Said Smith: "I'm used to playing against physical players in the ACC, but they did a good job of putting two or three people on me. They came out from the jump and we didn't."
Smith declined to speculate about his future, but Williams said, "We're here to talk about the game. We'll talk about other things later."
It wasn't much of a game to talk about. After not playing well against 14th-seeded Gonzaga in the opening round, after struggling to put 11th-seeded Texas away until the last couple of minutes, Maryland figured it would play better against the Huskies. That's always been the way this team has operated.
But the Terps played worse. They came out sloppy on offense and flat-footed on defense, and the Huskies took control early. It was 7-1 in the first 81 seconds and Maryland, though it pulled once within 13-12, never seemed to recover. It was the only game this season that the Terps never had a lead.
"Off the bat, we made some turnovers and rushed some shots and they got out to a big lead," said junior point guard Duane Simpkins. "We were playing catch-up the whole time."
They never caught up, cutting their deficit into single digits only once late in the game, at 90-81 on a layup by Lucas with 3:16 left. But Knight dunked and after blocking Simpkins at the other end, the 7-foot center was fouled and made both ends of a one-and-one. The countdown to the regional final against the Bruins had begun.
For Maryland, the only thing that started last night was the off-season. The Terps flew back wondering about what went wrong here and what will take place in the next few months, as Smith decides his future.
With or without him, Booth promised that Maryland will be back strong next season.
"We have to work even harder," he said, "to get over the hump."
2& They never got over it last night.
RESULTS West Regional
1. UCLA ...... ........ 86
5. Mississippi State .. 67
2. Connecticut ........ 99
* 3. Maryland ........... 89
2. North Carolina ..... 74
6. Georgetown ......... 64
1. Kentucky ........... 97
* 5. Arizona State ...... 73
TONIGHT East Regional
1. Wake Forest vs.
4. Okla. State, 7:40, Ch. 13
6. Tulsa vs.
( 2. Massachusetts, 10:10*
2. Arkansas vs.
6. Memphis, 8, Ch. 9
1. Kansas vs.
4. Virginia, 10:30*, chs. 13, 9
*-Approximate starting time