Pulling off the impossible looks improbable

The Baltimore Sun

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -Here are the Terps, heading back to College Park with just a couple of days to lick their wounds and make one last desperate push for the NCAA tournament. They'll roll into Atlanta on Tuesday night for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, tasked with a tall order: "We might have to make something impossible possible," junior Greivis Vasquez says.

That's what the season has come to: A team that showed again and again that it struggles with probable must now make the impossible possible. Sounds promising, right?

If we use yesterday's 68-63 loss at Virginia as any gauge, Maryland seems eager to pack in its season. In a game the Terps had to win to even their conference record, they blew not only a first-half lead but also possibly their chance at the NCAA tournament.

There was one sequence against the Cavaliers that seemed to shrink the Terp Coaster down to size, squeezing all the ups, the downs, the dips and the crazy turns of their season into a 10-second flash of time.

With only 38 seconds remaining, Virginia's Mamadi Diane drilled a three-pointer to break open a game that was tied at 61.

The Terps inbounded the ball, and what happened next encapsulated all the chaos that seems to envelope this team at key times.

"For a minute, we didn't really know what play we were going to run," Landon Milbourne said.

Said Dave Neal: "Coach Williams called one play. Greivis called another one."

"It was a little confusing to me," Vasquez offered.

Williams anticipated a zone defense - which had been eating up the Terps for much of the second half. He called one play but tried switching it when the Cavaliers showed man-to-man.

The eventual play was called "Black" - Neal sets a screen, Vasquez loses his defender and fires an open shot.

But either the confusion or the excitement forced Vasquez to freelance. He acknowledges missing the play. "It happens," he said. Neal set the screen, but Vasquez refused it, instead driving into the paint and launching an ugly shot that never had a flight plan.

"I take responsibility in that play," Vasquez said later. "I should've run a good play. But I got confused."

Williams crouched on the sideline, disgustedly swatting his right hand through the air. There was no public persecution of his star player after the game, though.

"It isn't all about the last play," Williams said. "There's 39 minutes before that."

He's right. It isn't fair to pinpoint the loss on one botched possession. In truth, Maryland lost the game in the botched plays and missed opportunities that preceded Vasquez's Night at the Improv.

And that's what is most disconcerting for Williams as he takes his team into the conference tournament.

The Terps have given a couple of months' worth of evidence that suggests they might be able to string together a couple wins in the ACC tournament. But suddenly it all feels replaced by Exhibit A: the Charlottesville Choke.

After all, this was a Virginia team that had lost four straight entering the game, that had dropped 12 of its previous 14 and that was just 9-17 this season and only 3-12 in conference play.

But it wasn't simply that the Terps lost to Virginia; it's that the heart and grit that pulled them through so many tough games - and perhaps the only reason to think they stand a chance in Atlanta - was nowhere to be seen for much of the game.

And that's not the opinion of some jaded critic. It's what the players said.

"There was probably some guys that didn't give their best effort, but we can't use that as an excuse," said Neal, who finished with 15 points. "If you couldn't get excited for this game - we're 7-8, a chance to win and go 8-8, and you can't get excited to play hard for 40 minutes - I question your love for basketball."

Vasquez was more succinct.

"We just didn't play hard, man," said Vasquez, who led the Terps with 21 points.

That's what decided last night's game, and ultimately that's what will decide this team's postseason fate.

Williams has been quick to praise this team in both wins and losses this season. What separates this group from recent teams is that they've relied on effort to compensate for lacking skills and natural talent. If the Terps go to Atlanta and play as they did yesterday, there's no reason to even take luggage on the trip.

They head to the conference tournament with uncertainty fueling their trip, not hope. Despite a couple of big wins this season, the Terps have shown they can't win on the road (2-6), they closed the season losing three of their final four, and players are now questioning their own effort. That's not exactly the recipe for postseason success.

To get a whiff of an at-large bid, they must win at least two in Atlanta and might need to play their way into the championship game. That's a tall task considering more than two months have passed since the Terps last won three straight games (you'll recall that trio of earth-shattering wins over Bryant, Elon and Charlotte back in late December and early January).

Can they do it this week?

Sure, but that might mean making the impossible possible.

tourney tracks

Maryland heads to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Atlanta needing to win at least two games to qualify for the NCAA tournament. If Virginia Tech defeats Florida State today, Maryland will play its opening game at noon Thursday against Miami in the game pitting the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, respectively. If the Hokies lose, Maryland will be the No. 7 seed and will face No. 10 seed North Carolina State on Thursday night.

Jeff Barker

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