COLLEGE PARK -- There are in college basketball what the late Jim Valvano called "directional schools," meaning those with directions in their names, such as Northeastern or Southwest Missouri State.
Then there are "directional games," which are different creatures altogether. Those are key games that propel a team in one direction or another, up or down. The Maryland Terrapins played one last night.
Having lost three straight games, including two to Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, the Terps pretty much had to beat Virginia at Comcast Center to maintain real hopes of landing a place in the NCAA tournament next month.
They delivered, overcoming a horrid start to win, 76-65, with D.J. Strawberry and Ekene Ibekwe leading a rousing rally down the stretch.
A night that started with Virginia scoring the first 13 points ended with Gary Williams in tears as he passed Lefty Driesell's school record for career coaching victories. But even on a big night for him personally, Williams acknowledged the importance of the win for his team.
"This was big for us," he said. "We had to really dig deep to find a way."
The win certainly doesn't mean the Terps are now a lock to go to the NCAAs - far from it. They're 15-7 for the season, and they'll need to come through similarly in the coming weeks in a majority of their games against Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami, Virginia again - teams they know they can beat.
But a loss last night could have crushed them, and they avoided it, and that was quite a feat on a night when they trailed for the first 32 minutes, committing more turnovers and missing more shots than any coach would want to see.
"We had to have this game, plain and simple," Strawberry said. "If we want to accomplish our goals, we have to win games. We started out sort of rough tonight, and I kept telling everyone, 'We're still going to win, we're going to win.' I think everyone fed off what I was saying."
Next up for the Terps is a home game Saturday against Duke, the ACC's top team, which is already assured of an NCAA berth. North Carolina State, probably the league's second-best team, also looks like a lock to go to the tournament.
If you assume that the 12-team league is likely to get, say, five NCAA berths in a slightly down year, the Terps are one of six teams battling for the three remaining spots. Their competition is Miami, North Carolina, Boston College, Virginia and Florida State.
Four wins in their remaining seven games would give them 19 wins overall and a winning record in the ACC. That would probably get them in. Twenty wins overall would do it for sure.
But such achievements are hardly assured. The Terps have lost senior guard Chris McCray, who was declared academically ineligible last month, and senior forward Travis Garrison has been relegated to the bench and a lesser role after his arrest on an assault charge last month. Losing two major pieces of their puzzle has left the Terps with less experience and less offensive firepower than expected. Williams is coaching on the fly, still searching for combinations and trying to sort things out.
Little-used point guard Parrish Brown played a key role last night, steadying the offense down the stretch.
"We don't have just one way of playing this year," Williams said. "And we don't have much margin for error. We have to make sure we get good looks [at the basket] every game."
In the first nine minutes last night, they made just three baskets while committing six fouls and three turnovers. It was a horror show. As is the case every time Mike Jones and Nik Caner-Medley (their only explosive scorers) aren't hitting, they had to scrap for every point - a jumper here, a put-back there, the occasional three-pointer.
But their defense and effort were there from the beginning, and their offense slowly smoothed out as the night wore on. Strawberry hit a flurry of jumpers that had the crowd rocking in the second half, and Ibekwe took over inside, producing 12 points and 10 rebounds in 16 second-half minutes.
When a reporter told him after the game that he had played like a man out there, Ibekwe smiled and said, "I am a man."
Everyone was all smiles in the end, not to mention enormously relieved. Williams had his record, and the Terps had new life.
Nothing is going to come easily for them this season; that became plainly apparent last night.
"You saw a good team play in the second half. We're going to have to play that way," Williams said.
But at least now they know they can.