In the immediate aftermath of the Maryland Terrapins' season-ending loss to Duke in the Final Four, the attitude among many Terps fans turned from joy to bitterness. Instead of reveling in their team's first trip to college basketball's promised land, they lamented what they felt was poor, pro-Duke officiating that had cost Maryland the game.
Those passions are cooling, for the most part, 17 days later. Life goes on, seasons change. Now it's the Orioles' quiet bats, not the Final Four refs, that are spiking everyone's blood pressure. But a nagging thought lingers: How will the Terps' Final Four run be remembered? What's the frame into which this lasting memory will go? Twenty years from now, will talk-show callers emphasize the joy of reaching the Final Four for the first time or the bitterness of getting (in their minds) a raw deal against a hated opponent?
Here's hoping joy prevails in the end and the railings of conspiracy theorists die out.
Why does it matter? For starters, because it's a potential public health issue; holding onto a grudge for that long is bad for the digestive system and mental health, and if enough folks succumb, we'll have to give it a name - Dukus Zebratitis.
But more importantly, it's just not true that bad officiating cost Maryland the game and, it turned out, possibly a national championship.
If people are going to go to the trouble of carrying a grudge for 20 years, their belief should at least be grounded in fact, not fiction - and the notion that the Terps lost to the refs instead of Duke is, indeed, fiction.
No, that doesn't mean the whistle work of David Libbey, Mark Reischling and Ted Hillary was superior that night. To the contrary, it was awful. A lot of rough play went uncalled, yet numerous light-touch, ticky-tack fouls also were blown. The inconsistency was maddening and well beneath the Final Four setting. Imagine a major-league umpire changing his strike zone from inning to inning, or even batter to batter - in the World Series.
And yes, Duke probably did benefit from the faulty foul-calling somewhat more than Maryland. Terence Morris and Tahj Holden were in foul trouble, and thus, minimized as factors. Lonny Baxter fouled out on an atrocious call. Duke's Shane Battier, meanwhile, wasn't whistled for a foul until halfway through the second half. Duke never seems to have a surplus of questionable calls to complain about, and it didn't after this game, either.
If Maryland fans want to vent about a more legitimate gripe, here's one: The Blue Devils shot twice as many three-pointers as Maryland in the four games between the teams this season, yet somehow, while relying on those outside shots instead of pounding the ball inside, the Blue Devils also managed to shoot 30 more free throws. Amazing, huh? Or maybe not so amazing.
But please understand the distinction being drawn here. As bad as the officiating was that night in Minneapolis, and as much as Duke sometimes seems to play by a different set of rules, to suggest that the refs beat the Terps in the Final Four is simply inaccurate. Grossly inaccurate.
Remember, the Terps were outscored by 33 points over the final 27 minutes. Completely blown away. It didn't happen by chance. The Blue Devils attacked Maryland defensively, taking away Baxter and Juan Dixon down the stretch and pressuring Steve Blake into a sloppy performance. Gary Williams' team failed to find new ways to score. The Blue Devils also attacked Maryland offensively, scoring 78 points in the final 27 minutes. The Terps couldn't stop Jason Williams or Battier, the best players on the court.
That's not officiating. That's playing, coaching and adjusting, the game's decisive elements. They were decisive in this game, too.
Yes, Duke held a slight edge in the areas the officials control. The Blue Devils were called for three fewer fouls than Maryland (26-23) and shot eight more free throws (35-27). But that disparity was minimal compared to others. Maryland blocked one shot to Duke's eight. Maryland committed 21 turnovers to Duke's seven. Maryland's supposedly deeper bench scored five fewer points. Those were all huge factors in what ended as an 11-point loss for the Terps.
The defeat became doubly frustrating when Duke rolled past Arizona to win the NCAA title two nights later. The Terps played the champs much tougher. They were the nation's second-best team at the end of the season. Those wallowing in the woulda, coulda, shoulda because of the officiating need to swallow a happy pill. The Terps have Baxter, Dixon, Blake, Holden, Byron Mouton, Chris Wilcox and Danny Miller returning. They could be the preseason No. 1 next fall. They're a year away from moving into a new arena that will help recruiting, which is already going well. Their glass, as they say, is way half-full.
The season that just ended was a breakthrough event in the end - the most successful season in school history, and a possible precursor to more. That's how it should be remembered, not as the season in which the refs stole Maryland's title. Come on. A team that blows a 22-point lead and squanders a 16-rebound advantage forfeits the right to blame anyone or anything other than itself. No exceptions allowed.