COLLEGE PARK -With their most indispensable player suddenly dispensed to a spectator role, the Terps were a team with no options. Fouls handcuffed Greivis Vasquez to the bench, and the Terps' hopes were suddenly shackled to an unfortunate, inescapable reality.
Despite the best efforts of players like Adrian Bowie, Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne, in the waning moments of last night's 78-67 loss to Duke, Maryland needed a leader, not a cheerleader. The Terps flirted with the possibility of winning without their star player; they winked an eye and played footsie with a chance at upsetting the No. 7 Blue Devils.
But this team is to built to go only as far as Vasquez can take it. Last night, the junior guard picked up two needless fouls in the first 2 1/2 minutes of the second half, then his fifth foul with 3 1/2 minutes remaining.
The game - alternately exciting and frustrating for Terps fans - provided the Terps an opportunity to show not just the nation they could win without their best player, but also themselves. They couldn't do it, though, which causes both concern for the rest of the season and confirmation for the role Vasquez plays on this team. Just one game after posting the Terps' first triple double in more than two decades, Vasquez finished last night with 10 points, six rebounds and five assists.
Maryland coach Gary Williams was careful with his words after the game, clearly not happy with the officiating but proud of his players' resilience during Vasquez's extended absence. "We have a damn good basketball team," Williams said. "We played really hard tonight, played our hearts out."
Heading into their final week of regular-season games, Maryland is still in the hunt for an NCAA tournament dance ticket, a fortunate reality considering how lopsided some of their losses have been this season.
A win last night would've helped on the Terps' postseason resume, but the loss doesn't necessarily hurt their case. The field is still open. In their conference, they're competing with Florida State, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech for at-large bids. The picture was only further muddled last night when the Hokies upset No. 12 Clemson on the road.
With two games on the road and a tough visit from Wake Forest on Tuesday - Maryland's fourth ranked opponent in five games - the Terps will likely be hanging their postseason hats on two wins against top-five programs and a strength of schedule that would make most of the country shed tears. In those final three games, Vasquez will be essential.
It has been a while since we've seen a Maryland team as dependent on a single player as this one. As important as it is to have Vasquez in games, it hurts to have him watch helplessly from the bench.
Last night, Vasquez picked up with fourth foul at the 17:42 mark of the second half, his team trailing 37-36. When he returned with 7:33 to go, the Terps not only hadn't lost any ground; but they had also actually tied the game 56-56.
"It's a shame that we couldn't play those 10 minutes with Greivis," Williams said. "It really is."
Last night, Vasquez didn't score his first points until nearly seven minutes in. (By that point in Saturday's upset over North Carolina, Vasquez had already scored the Terps' first 16 points of the game.) But, in the meantime, he pulled down four boards, played tight defense and quietly helped his Terps take an early lead.
Vasquez wasn't simply the difference in the second half. This entire season has illustrated just how big an effect Vasquez can have on his teammates. A year ago, he often outperformed his season averages in Maryland's losses. By season's end, his scoring average was nearly identical in the Terps' 19 wins and in their 14 losses.
It has been different this season, though. In the Terps' 17 wins, he has averaged 19.4 points; in their 10 losses, 11.5. He had just two against Georgetown, six at Florida State and perhaps most memorably, four in the Terps' embarrassing, 41-point loss at Duke last month.
The Terps learned again last night they very well could be an NCAA tournament team when Vasquez is running the show. When he's watching it, though, it's another story altogether.