Remember the moment, and move on

The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK -When it was finished - after Maryland had upset North Carolina, after the delirious Terps fans had been mopped off the court, after the deflated Tar Heels players had been left alone with their thoughts, and after a Maryland staffer sprinted from the locker room to retrieve Landon Milbourne's lost shoe from the mob at center court - Gary Williams briefly addressed his team.

His message had two parts, entirely connected and yet oddly disconnected. You'll always remember this game, he told them. But for now, you have to move on.

Williams knows and his players know that it's the only way. The faint heartbeat of the Terps' NCAA tournament hopes is still beating today, thanks to yesterday's thrilling 88-85 overtime win over third-ranked North Carolina.

"I've been in other games like this, and that's the way it goes. It just flashes back every once in while, and you remember it. I told them that," Williams said, "but when it comes time to practice and getting ready for the next game, this has to be put off to the side."

As big a win as it was, it didn't punch any postseason tickets. It simply meant the Terps live to dream another day.

The goal now is to repeat that amazing performance at least two more times. The next chance is Wednesday against Duke, a team that beat Maryland by 41 points a month ago.

Yesterday's win - highlighted by the greatest game Greivis Vasquez has played and a clutch performance from Cliff Tucker off the bench - surely buoyed hopes among Terps faithful that an at-large bid might be in Maryland's future. With four games remaining - two against top-10 teams and the other two on the road - it's not a long shot, but it also doesn't feel close to a sure thing.

While the Terps are excited to add the "W" on their postseason resume, the true benefit from last night's win might have come from the effort, not the result. It showed a beleaguered team what is possible down the stretch - maybe in their next four games, maybe in Atlanta at the conference tournament.

"Now that we know we can play with anybody, we are going to be ready to play," senior Dave Neal said.

That's the kind of attitude that has been missing around College Park, where players and coaches have been preoccupied with playing defense against critics and their athletic department administrators. It's about time this team focused on basketball. Lucky for them, it's not too late in the season to embrace a turning point, not when any squad can string together a few wins in the conference tournament and avoid March Sadness.

It feels like the Terps, as a team, are starting to realize what's possible. Vasquez has often talked about posting a triple double during his time at Maryland. And yesterday he did it in impressive fashion - 35 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. He scored the Terps' first 16 points of the game, in fact, and seemed to come up with a big play whenever his team needed one.

But that's not what excited him after the game. That's not what he's taking from yesterday's win. "My goal is to make it to the tournament," he said.

He was asked what the win means in light of the gray cloud that has followed Williams and the program the past month.

"No comment," Vasquez smartly said.

This isn't to say that everything is perfect in the basketball program again. Far from it. But if the Terps are to return to the top - or at least return to the NCAA tournament - they have to remain focused.

There aren't many coaches who can prepare a team as Williams can. He has spent more time than he would probably like these past few weeks defending his reputation. He surely knows this, but the best argument he can make - to supporters and detractors alike - is by winning games, by beating teams like North Carolina, by giving a frustrated fan base more reasons to storm the Comcast Center court.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams was brief in his comments after the game. It was almost as if he didn't know what had just hit him. Hard to blame Williams - North Carolina was up by 16 points in the second half; its best player, Tyler Hansbrough, was held to 11 points; its bench was outscored 41-5; and it gave the game away with costly mistakes in the closing minutes.

"The best team won today," he said. "The toughest team, the smartest team, the best-coached team won today. That's all I have to say."

It was a telling description. No, the Terps weren't more talented. In fact, they usually aren't. But they were tougher, smarter and better coached, and those are the attributes that can make a difference down the stretch, that can help an overmatched team string together wins when they're needed most.

Upsetting North Carolina will be a great game to look back on someday. But right now, there's no time for reflection. The Terps have expended far too much energy lately looking backward.

It's time they focused solely on what's ahead of them.

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