Hollow defeat

Greivis Vasquez walked through the runway to the Maryland locker room and left others to observe the madness unfolding behind him. James Gist squatted under the basket near the Terps bench, hands clasped over his head, also unable to look.

But they both had to hear all the whooping and hollering and slapping of sneakers at the opposite bench, where the Clemson players had swarmed to celebrate. There was no other noise to drown them out. Comcast Center was as silent and shocked and hurting as the players were.


This 6-year-old building has never witnessed a loss as grotesque as the one last night. The Terps' old home, Cole Field House, has at least one scarier ghost, from 2001, the infamous Duke collapse. That team still made the Final Four. This one? Well, Gary Williams, in the shell-shocked aftermath of the 73-70 punch in the face, unscrunched his face long enough to speak on the public-address system, on the post-game radio show, and offer one last, desperate plea to the slack-jawed fans.

"It's not over yet," he insisted.


Of course not. If it's not over when you have a 59-39 lead, at home, with 11:21 left, with everything riding on this game and with time running out on the season and your NCAA tournament hopes - then nothing is ever over.

Twenty points, 11:21 to go. Even with a team as wildly unpredictable as this one, which makes the teams of the past four years look like the old Lucas-Elmore-McMillen dynasty, the Maryland faithful should have felt fairly safe. They could have been forgiven for making arrangements for two weekends from now, the start of March Madness. The Sunday after next was shaping up to be a restful one - no fists or teeth clenched, hoping Maryland's name would appear on a line on that NCAA bracket.

Then the Terps coughed up one of the all-time furballs ever witnessed in these parts. Now, that bracket is looking faint, as faint and distant as the look in the eyes of everybody in Comcast not wearing blue and orange last night.

Now, beating Virginia in Charlottesville next Sunday isn't even close to being enough. Maryland needs an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament run, maybe a 2004-level stampede, to make up for this gag job.

Selection Sunday is shaping up to be See-ya-later Sunday. Again. For the third time in four years. There's not enough sugar in the metropolitan area to coat that.

The Terps now face one of the most nerve-racking weeks in the program's history. It's already gnawing at Gist, who saw his Senior Night ruined, and who also saw, close-up, one of the pivotal plays of the game: James Mays' steal of a pass intended for Gist in the backcourt, leading to the tying basket with 45 seconds left.

"I don't know much about how to keep anyone's spirit up," acknowledged Gist, the inspirational speaker before Thursday's win at Wake Forest. "Especially mine right now."

The other key senior, Bambale Osby, was tied up with foul trouble, forced to watch a group of mainly freshmen bail him and the team out. The freshmen were the ones spearheading the 17-2 first-half run that yanked momentum their way, the ones helping push the second-half lead to 20, and the ones temporarily righting the ship for some three minutes late in the game to give Maryland a 68-55 lead with 4:48 left, a minute before Osby came back in.


Correct, math majors: They were outscored 18-2 from then on. On their home floor. With their season on the line. Everything - the momentum, the bench play, the surge from the youngsters, the senior leadership - went up in flames that fast. The final minutes were defined by what Maryland, suddenly and catastrophically, could not do.

When the Terps needed to make one stop to put the game away, they couldn't do it. One pass to maintain possession, they couldn't do it. One free throw to put the pressure on the scrapping, clawing Tigers, they couldn't do it. One good play to get one good shot in the final moments, they couldn't do it.

Finally, a hand in the face of freshman Terrence Oglesby when he caught the ball and fired a three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left, they couldn't do it.

"We'll see what we're made of this week," Williams said afterward.

Maybe. But everybody saw too much of what they're made of last night. Even Vasquez and Gist, who, at the end, couldn't bear to look anymore.


Listen to David Steele on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).