When heat is on, coach stays cool

The Baltimore Sun

The fans surrounding the Comcast Center court yesterday wore red T-shirts that read "This is Garyland" on the front and "We [Heart] Our Coach" on the back. A bunch of them also sported red buttons adorned with the coach's face surrounded by the words "In Gary We Trust."

Love and trust. What better sentiments to express to anyone, much less the embattled coach, on Valentine's Day?

It was likely no coincidence that Gary Williams put a little extra punch into his traditional pre-game fist pump to the crowd as he entered before Maryland's crucial game against Virginia Tech. It indicated that, despite his post-game denial - "No," he said when asked about it, "I coach the team" - he was acutely aware of a houseful of supporters, on yet another day when he was sure that an army of forces were aligned against him.

Give him his due, though. Williams coached the team, brilliantly, once again. It might have been a stretch to call it a must-win game, but beating a team with the talent and resume of Virginia Tech was all but mandatory if Maryland had serious thoughts about chasing an NCAA tournament berth. Especially with the coming schedule, at Clemson, then at home against North Carolina and Duke.

Oh, and after about another million degrees of heat were turned on his program and its recruiting last week.

Just as was the case during the first wave about three weeks ago, Williams closed the circle and trained his laser focus on preparing the team, and it paid off. The 83-73 victory, the Terps' third in four games since the fold-up against Boston College, was the best overall performance of the season, nudging out the last time they played under those conditions, at home against Miami.

They even locked down another explosive Baltimore guard - last time Jack McClinton (Calvert Hall), this time Malcolm Delaney (Towson Catholic) - as if to cut off another he-got-away-too story at the pass.

Williams' way of acknowledging the negative attention has been, basically, not to acknowledge it. The players don't hesitate to say they know all about it, but they tune it out and close ranks. "We knew people are always criticizing Coach, and us as a team," freshman guard Sean Mosley said. "We just come out and play. We leave all the critics and everything to the side and just play for ourselves and Coach."

Pretty crisp commentary. Of course, Greivis Vasquez was standing nearby, ready to top it.

"We're just here to play games. We're not here to talk about Gary," he said, an impish grin on his face. "It's that way sometimes. We're trying to win games. We're not trying to get Gary fired. He has got more money than all of you guys together. He's not worried about what you guys say. He's worried about getting us ready to play basketball games."

The Terps were so ready that when Vasquez got into foul trouble at the 8:36 mark, then went out for good with 2:32 left, they maintained their poise, their cool and their lead. It's a huge reversal from previous games, the ones that got Maryland into the predicament it's in.

It is also the latest proof that this group of players can win the way similar groups of players have won for Williams in years past.

The fans showed their appreciation throughout - including one notable fan at midcourt, sitting next to prominent Garyland resident Steve Bisciotti. During a first-half timeout, John Harbaugh stood up, with the red T-shirt, showed it to the crowd and pumped his fist. They loved it.

Love, of course, is better when it's returned. At Comcast Center, returning it with a win is acceptable.

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

points after

* Hey, University of South Carolina students, you know when's the best time to invite everybody over and break out your stash? Right now, because the local cops are busy investigating parties from three months ago.

* Then again, certain partygoers, be thankful the police are showing up now, instead of that night. Imagine how different the conversation would be today.

* Like owner, like coach: On the topic of Ray Lewis, John Harbaugh isn't exactly playing his cards close to the vest, either.

* Told you Michelle Wie was going to be good. Eventually.

* We truly are living in historic times. It's even permissible to admit enjoying NBA All-Star weekend again.

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