COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- The Maryland men's basketball team didn't want to play in the National Invitation Tournament, and after yesterday's poor performance in it, the Terps no longer have to.
An 87-84 loss to No. 8 seed Manhattan (20-10) abruptly knocked the top-seeded Terps (19-13) out of the NIT in the first round and stunned a measly Comcast Center crowd of 4,761. Instead of salvaging their season with a serious run in the less-prestigious tournament after having been omitted from the NCAAs, Maryland became the first No. 1 seed to lose this month.
"This whole year is embarrassing," senior forward Nik Caner-Medley said. "Not making the NCAA tournament is embarrassing.
"Obviously we wanted to be in the NCAA tournament, and I think we probably would've played better if we were [there]," he said, "but that's just the nature of the game."
It was Maryland's second straight appearance in the NIT, but last year, the Terps advanced as far as the semifinal round in New York. Yesterday, Maryland trailed for the final 25 minutes and never led by more than four points to a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference team whose leading scorer was serving an academic suspension.
While it was a disappointing finish for those within the program, it was not entirely a surprise to watch considering how unpredictable the Terps had played all season and their open lack of enthusiasm for playing in the NIT. Initially, Maryland coach Gary Williams had turned down the bid - a move he said the players agreed with.
Apparently, they never changed their minds.
"The main thing is that we thought we were slighted out of making the [NCAA] tournament," said junior forward Ekene Ibekwe, who, along with Travis Garrison, notched a double double. "We weren't necessarily happy about playing in the NIT. We didn't get as up in emotion as we would do if we were in the tournament, but we just have to bring it mentally every game and every day in practice."
Williams' understanding was tempered by his desire to win.
"You can feel sorry for yourself, but when it comes time to play ... I mean really, nobody, no other school in the country, cares whether we win this game or not," he said. "It's up to us. That's where team comes in."
Nobody on the team scored in double digits in the first half, and Maryland went to the locker room trailing 47-37 after allowing seven three-pointers.
After the game, junior guard D.J. Strawberry threw his hands up in frustration, baffled by what had just transpired on the court - or rather, what had not.
"Manhattan, they took it to us early," he said. "Then from there it was a struggle to come back because we were just ... I don't know. It was a frustrating game. I don't know what happened."
The game, which was never as close as the final score indicated, mirrored a majority of Maryland's other 31 games this season, as the Terps turned the ball over 20 times, missed 11 free throws, struggled to defend the perimeter and missed open shots and layups.
In short, the Terps played the way that got them into the NIT in the first place.
Maryland couldn't contain the Jaspers' quick, small guards, who Williams said "pretty much scored at will." Sophomore guard Jeff Xavier scored 31 points for Manhattan, and senior guard Jason Wingate added 21.
"Playing in the NIT is definitely not one of our goals, but at the same time, we definitely wanted to win," said junior guard Mike Jones. "It just seemed like they wanted it just a little more than we did."
Manhattan hit nine three-pointers and led by as many as 14 points. Maryland shot just 39.4 percent on 28 of 71 from the field.
Maryland trailed 82-70 with 3:23 left to play, but held Manhattan without a field goal for the rest of the game while it played catch-up. Wingate gave the Terps ample opportunity, as he missed three straight one-and-ones, but Franck Traore came off the bench and made his first two free throws of the season to put the Jaspers ahead 84-79 with 32 seconds left to play.
Maryland had the size advantage and out-rebounded Manhattan 55-35, but it didn't have the one intangible it needed to win.
"We didn't play with enough emotion," Williams said. "That can make the difference.
"This is a hard game to play," he said. "You have to be really focused. We know the students aren't going to be here. We know Manhattan is going to be ready to play. You have to match that. You have to find that from within, and we didn't do it."
With about 13 minutes left and her school trailing by 14 points, one of the few Maryland students who stayed on campus for spring break yelled, "You guys are EMBARRASSING!"
The one thing Williams said he wasn't was embarrassed.
"I don't get embarrassed," he said. "I'd be embarrassed if I didn't work hard. I work hard. That's all I can do. I can put it out there. So why should I be embarrassed?"