College Park — College Park-- --You couldn't turn a corner in Comcast Center and miss it last night. The vibe zipped from person to person like the flu bug in a dormitory. Greivis Vasquez bouncing off the court, popping his collar and screaming at the top of his lungs. The fans swarming onto the floor, a celebratory family reunion a long time in the making. A Maryland student swinging from the rim in street clothes. And an emotional head coach who knows he doesn't need to defend his team to anybody.
The Maryland men's basketball team had already managed to distance itself from those midseason miscues, forced the college hoops world to forget about that group that started conference play 2-5. Last night's 89-87 upset over No. 5 North Carolina wasn't about punching an exclamation point on how far they've come as much. They've rewritten expectations and last night hung a question mark on how far they might go.
You can have your Floridas and your Wisconsins. Right now, the Terps are playing as well as many of the top teams in the country. If someone told you that would be the case just a few weeks ago, you'd swear we'd slipped into a dream sequence. And maybe we have. Or maybe the Terps have simply woken up.
"Coach has always emphasized that teams get to a point ... and they play that way for the rest of the year," junior Bambale Osby said. "I think we've reached the point that we're going to play at for the rest of the year."
A five-game winning streak doesn't mean the Terps are suddenly invincible or without room for improvement. But we'll no longer use the word impossible. Improbable? Perhaps. But there's not much the Terps can do in the next month that would be completely shocking. The big surprise was the turnaround, and with that out of the way, Maryland is showing no signs of slowing down.
The Terps have something most Atlantic Coast Conference teams don't right now. It's as though they've finally learned to win and immediately bundle up the momentum, those emotions and that energy and stash it in a gym bag, storing it until their next time on the court.
Ekene Ibekwe has been here four years. He said he can't remember the Terps playing with the momentum and self-confidence they have right now.
"When you got a four-game win streak, you got that swagger, that confidence," he said.
And that's probably the most important part of basketball in March. Talent is great, if you have it. But it's not necessarily what propels successful teams forward.
Big rebounds and timely points in the paint have helped, but Maryland won't be mistaken for the most talented bunch. They're not the most athletic, not the smartest and not the luckiest. And that's what should scare every other team that sets foot on the same court the remainder of the season. Despite all these things, the Terps are still winning - and for the most part, winning big. Before last night's nail-biter, their four previous conference wins came by double-digit margins.
Tar Heels forward Reyshawn Terry said the Terps play with a "mean streak" and right now that seems to be what differentiates the Terps from other teams. Not long ago, this was a group marred by inconsistency, late disappearing acts and a practice intensity that didn't carry over to game day. Now, Maryland plays most possessions as if the game hinged on the very next bucket. They often seem to want it more - not something you heard much in College Park the past couple of years.
This is a team that was flirting pretty seriously with futility, and the Terps suddenly have posted their highest win total since the championship run five years ago. And their five straight conference wins are also the program's most since that 2001-02 season.
"It's not about how you start the ACC," Ibekwe said. "It's how you finish. We're definitely finishing strong."
After the game, players said Williams was as emotional in the locker room as he has been all season. But when asked what the win over the Tar Heels meant to him, Williams kept a stiff jaw. His faith never wavered.
"I saw practice every day," he said. "We weren't playing great, obviously. We were trying. I just kept telling them. You say things as a coach sometimes, you don't know if it's going to happen. But you say if you keep working hard, you'll get better."
They have. They're an improving team. They're a good team. And they showed last night that they're capable of beating the very best teams.
"I think we got it now," Osby said. "I think we found out how we're going to play, how we need to play, how people are going to play in their roles."
When you approach the postseason, the teams with the blue-chip talent and all the right pieces in just the right places are certainly a concern. But the teams that believe in themselves, that can ride a wave of momentum and know the worst is in the past and the peak is up ahead, those are the ones that scare opposing coaches.