COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland finally got the payoff to its season of tribulation last night, but only after considerable angst and hand-wringing.
The Terps had to wait out all four regionals and 60 other teams before learning they had made the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.
Their reward was the seventh seed in the West Regional, and an opening-round game against 10th-seeded Santa Clara Friday in Tempe, Ariz.
That matchup was the next-to-last announced during CBS' broadcast of the 64-team pairings.
"I'm happy for the team," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "I don't need to be vindicated. I just want our guys to get the deserving credit."
The Terps assembled privately in a room adjacent to their locker room at Cole Field House for the announcement. Their response to the news was as curious as their season.
"We didn't jump up and down," Williams said. "There was a sense of relief more than anything."
The seniors heaved a sigh of relief and the freshmen did the celebrating. At least, freshman Terrell Stokes did.
"Gary gave me five high-fives," Stokes said. "Five, five, five . . . I don't get excited over much, but you've got to get excited over this."
Laron Profit, another freshman, said he expected the bid and wasn't going to show emotion.
"I'm all business," he said. "I felt like we were in after we beat Florida State [to end the regular season]. It wasn't time to show emotion. If we weren't in, I was going to sue the NCAA. I'd get a lawyer because we had the strongest case."
The Terps (17-12), who came out of the West Regional a year ago when they reached the Sweet 16, were the sixth team from the Atlantic Coast Conference to get called during the show -- moments after Clemson drew the ninth seed in the West. The Tigers will play Georgia in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday.
That's when Williams got concerned.
"I wasn't sure we were in when I saw Clemson [go on the board]," he said. "You never know until you see your name up there. I learned not to count on anything. We finished ahead of Clemson in the regular season and were rated higher. But stranger things have happened."
The tension among the veterans was palpable, according to senior Mario Lucas.
"We were real nervous," Lucas said. "It got down to the last screen and everybody was uneasy a little bit. But we've got guys who've been in this situation before. I think we can go out there and get on a roll."
After two straight Sweet 16s, point guard Duane Simpkins tried to brace himself for potential bad news.
"I told myself to be prepared to take it any way it was," Simpkins said. "I've been through worse before."
His emotional swing?
"I think back to my sophomore year, and [this] wasn't as emotional, there wasn't as much of an outburst," Simpkins said.
Stokes, who said his two older brothers had both played in the NCAA tournament, saw the uncertainty on the seniors' faces.
"I looked at Johnny [Rhodes] and he's like, 'Oh, no,' " Stokes said. "Ex [Exree Hipp] was like this [holding his head down]."
Williams said the Terps met the criteria set up by the NCAA with an ambitious schedule that included losses to Kentucky, Massachusetts and UCLA, and the strength of the ACC.
"What I said all along was the NCAA bases its selection on strength of schedule [Maryland was fifth in the country], RPI [rating percentage index] of your team [30th] and RPI of your conference [first]."
Santa Clara (19-8) was the regular-season champion in the West Coast Conference, but was upset by eighth-seed Pepperdine in the first round of the conference tournament, 63-60. The Broncos feature Canadian point guard Steve Nash, who is averaging 16.9 points and 5.8 assists, and is the school's all-time assist and three-point leader.
If the Terps beat Santa Clara, they'll likely get second-seeded Kansas, which drew South Carolina State in the opening round. The West also includes No. 1 seed Purdue, No. 3 Arizona and No. 11 George Washington.
"A lot of people are saying Purdue is the 'iffy' team of all the No. 1 seeds," Profit said. "We feel like we can do the most damage out West."
Maryland takes an NCAA tournament record of 17-12 into its 13th tourney. That includes a perfect 12-0 mark in opening-round games.
Pub Date: 3/11/96