Maryland is done in one


WASHINGTON - If Terrapin Nation was contemplating a pity party yesterday, Gary Williams was on the microphone, setting the record straight.

Q. "Coach, does it make it worse that the ACC tournament is finally in your back yard and you're out of it by 2 p.m. on Thursday?"

Williams, after permitting himself a moderate pause in which to work up a classic gym rat/paranoiac/competitor's sneer, responded:

"No, it makes it more special that we kicked everyone's butt in Greensboro last year."

Roll that highlight tape all night, baby.

Williams' "gentle" reminder of the Terps' recent history was the best play of the day. He was telling naysayers, critics and glass-half-empty types not to forget that Maryland is a team that won the ACC tournament and a national title, all within the short and impressive span of senior Mike Grinnon's career.

And there was Grinnon, the only player Williams singled out for his toughness and hard work.

Then Williams implored everyone not to read anything into the fact that Grinnon was the only player Williams brought to the MCI Center news conference.

But who could resist?

It's tough to overlook the fact that by leaving John Gilchrist, Nik Caner-Medley, Chris McCray, Travis Garrison, Mike Jones, Ekene Ibekwe, Sterling Ledbetter and Will Bowers in the locker room, Williams was imploring these players to start forming a search party.

Missing: Terrapins basketball. Starts with defense, leads to transition baskets, the brand of ball sprinters and scorers love, but fueled by hard work. Reward.

Yesterday's 84-72 train wreck against Clemson was stunning for the way in which Maryland was not Maryland. The Terps officially sank below the ACC Mendoza Line, and now face the prospect of no chance to redeem themselves for months.

Maybe that's good. Maybe that's what this team needs. A long, cold shower.

Still, it's as shocking as it is depressing, erasing any memory of at least two very good wins this season.

Beat Duke twice? Doesn't matter, not when you lose to Clemson three times.

That's not a knock against the Tigers, who deserve praise, for their defense, their shooting, their willingness to play hard.

"We can't beat anybody playing 28 minutes, but we have a chance against anybody if we play hard for 40 minutes," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said.

Remember that word: hard. It's one Williams wants drilled into the heads of the underclassmen he gets back at College Park next year, which is basically the entire team.

"They played harder than we did in all three games," Williams said about Clemson. "They played hard. I know how to play hard. We won a national championship playing hard."

Now the NCAA tournament selection committee must decide whether to reward Maryland on the basis of its previous 11 years of consistently elite performances.

But the Terps' bubble would have to be considered popped. It's just as likely, therefore, that the committee will put them out of their misery, if not ours.

Williams refused to grovel, which was good, considering the situation.

"I'd like to go 12 straight [years] ... but I understand you have to earn your way onto the court," he said.

All season long, through the ups and down, Williams has tried to appeal to the Terps' sense of purpose, to their sense of urgency, commitment to defense, to becoming a team. Even Williams has acknowledged that what appeared to be last season's salvation for the Terps could have worked against them this time around.

Last year, the Terps did the improbable, coming back from the near-dead to gut out one of the most impressive ACC tournament runs. The streak turned Gilchrist into a March Madness household word. The Terps were able to believe their worst growing pains were behind them.

That was not the case. The Terps did not pick up where they left off. They took a step backward, hampered by the loss of D.J. Strawberry to injury; the inconsistency of Gilchrist in executing the Terps' offense the way Williams saw fit; the time it took for Caner-Medley to roar into action; the tapering off of Garrison.

In the locker room yesterday, the Terps said they want to go the NCAA tournament. They think their RPI ranking and their recent Final Four history and their string of 11 appearances will be enough to get their name called.

But it was all so lackluster, halfhearted.

"I keep thinking maybe this will be good for us. Things happen for a reason," Caner-Medley said.

"I look at North Carolina and the troubles they had, then they came together this year. If we can come together as a team, we have the talent to be a great team."

The Terps will need more than a game or two in the NCAA tournament to achieve this lofty goal.

As tough as this reality is, they seem to know it.

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