Small wonders outdo UM

The Baltimore Sun

If your spirits have risen and fallen with the fate of the Maryland basketball team this season, and the past four, you might have looked at the scene inside RAC Arena yesterday and felt a wistful nostalgia. Or a raging jealousy. Or a bitter fury. Or an involuntary muscle twinge, as you flung the remote at your TV.

It used to be that much fun to root for the Terps - to be around the program, period.

Yesterday, it was Christmas, New Year's, Mardi Gras and spring break all rolled into one inside UMBC's home building, a giddy, two-hour time frame, and never was it more joyous than when the final buzzer signaled, officially, the time-honored storming of the court. Yes, they jumped the gun by 0.7 of a second. They got the do-over, and it was just as sweet.

It's one thing to watch it happen every night on TV for a week, but now the students at UMBC - your 2008 America East tournament champs and first-time visitor to the NCAA Division I tournament - were the ones being watched, and the ones losing themselves in joy before the entire country.

On Wednesday, it was Mount St. Mary's turn, and last night, Baltimore City joined the party when Coppin State edged Morgan State to earn the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's bid.

The UMBC fans - making up the first sellout in the building's history - were giddy, yes. Yet they had nothing on the players and coaches, who looked positively enraptured at every moment of the experience, from jumping up and down amid the throng on the court to cutting down the nets, to meeting the media afterward. They didn't even look tired, except in their facial muscles.

"It's a great feeling," said Brian Hodges, the lone senior who came in with coach Randy Monroe in 2004 and lived through seasons of 11, 10 and 12 wins before the breakout this season. Hodges had one of the nets draped around his neck, a special present Monroe said he wanted Hodges to have.

"Four years of hard work paying off," Hodges said. "It's a great feeling to see that crowd out there the way it was today, and then for us to play like we did - it's a great feeling," he kept repeating.

The scene was similar last night in Raleigh, N.C., at the MEAC final, except on a neutral floor, and both resembled the madness - albeit on their opponent's home court - when Mount clinched its spot.

We're surrounded by programs on the rise, programs breathing fresh and rarified air, programs energizing campuses and alumni and everyone around them. The whole scene is crackling with excitement.

The lone, dreary exception is in College Park.

There, the weight of expectations has crushed everybody around it. Today, Maryland is the sourest program in the state. The fan base is looking for a sacrificial lamb. Gary Williams is fighting off the wolves at his heels. The players look and sound drained and beaten. Alumni walk around with scowls left over from the Lefty Driesell days.

And this team has won 18 games, playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It's not as if the Terps went 5-25 and were going back on probation.

But six years after winning the national championship, that's how it feels. As Pat Riley once said, there's either winning or misery, and if your program is being defined by the bottom-line mercenary standards of the pros, then things have gone terribly wrong.

The only way to keep that feeling of 2002 alive - not to mention the feeling of unbridled joy spreading across UMBC, the Mount and Coppin - is to keep winning. That's the price of ultimate success, and nobody saw that bill coming that night in Atlanta six Aprils ago.

UMBC, Mount and Coppin fans don't have those issues. They're free to act the fool in front of the cameras, to paint their faces, to feel relaxed and satisfied tonight when their school's name appears on the bracket on CBS.

And, it must be acknowledged, to poke a couple of fingers in Maryland's eyes. Oooooh, the UMBC kids didn't let that chance get away.

"Fear the Turtle Retriever."

"Retrievers In, Terps Out AGAIN"

"To All Terps Fans - Enjoy Watching UMBC in the NCAA Tournament!!"

The ESPN cameras zoomed in on that last sign, in the middle of the jam-packed floor at the end of the game. The whole country saw it. College Park certainly saw it. If ever there was a time to use the remote to turn the TV off for good, that was it.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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

David Steele -- Points after

It's kind of a cliche to say a natural disaster puts sports in perspective. But, yeah, a tornado hitting the Georgia Dome in mid-game during the Southeastern Conference tournament makes you a little less touchy about whether your team is or isn't on the bubble.

More perspective: Ray Ray McElrathbey getting his football scholarship yanked by Clemson, which soaked up lots of free, positive publicity for itself when he struggled to take care of his little brother while playing and attending school. Seems McElrathbey's scholarship can be better used by another player. Those are some real fine life lessons you're teaching them there, Clemson. Well done.

Once again, ESPN's stable of "legal analysts" has been unavailable at a critical time - with ESPN itself possibly getting the Connecticut women's program in trouble with the NCAA. Probably busy still memorizing Barry Bonds' unsealed grand-jury testimony.

In case the best basketball in the world holds any interest to you at all, Houston Rockets-Los Angeles Lakers (with Houston going for its 22nd straight win and first place in the West) should end before the bracket guys get on the air tonight.

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