ATLANTA -As Maryland men's basketball strives to recapture some of the magic that once made every March day feel like a holiday, it's almost as if we're watching a scene from Back to the Future.
There are the Terps in the NCAA tournament photograph, their hopes of an invitation fading, fading, fading.
And then suddenly color. The Terps back in the picture.
With last night's 74-69 win over North Carolina State, Maryland advances to the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, which means it has a date tonight with Wake Forest - less than two weeks after the Demon Deacons eked out a victory in College Park.
No, the Terps don't match up with Wake Forest quite as well as they did against the Wolfpack last night, but they'll need a similar performance. I don't mean Greivis Vasquez needs to throw in 17 points and have 10 assists again. Or that Eric Hayes needs to make five of six shots from behind the three-point arc. Or that they should expect to be able to outscore their foe in the paint, as they did against N.C. State.
None of that would hurt, of course. But it's the effort they'll need to match.
As we've said so often this season, the Terps didn't win last night because they're better. They won it rolling around the court, playing smart, aggressive defense and pushing around much bigger bodies under the basket.
"I don't think we're going to change anything," Vasquez said last night, which is good, because the only formula that gives the Terps any chance at returning to the NCAA tournament requires them to play above their talent level.
That's a difficult concept to quantify, and even Williams seems to realize his players are outmatched on paper.
The day before the Terps began conference tournament play, the veteran coach was particularly reflective on what makes this team tick, why we're even talking about Maryland as a bubble team still.
"As a coach, I always judge myself a little differently than just wins and losses," he said. "I look at a team, how much they've given, how hard players have worked. This has been one of the better teams in terms of their work ethic."
It's one of the few categories in which the Terps are among the conference leaders. It's also one of those categories that decides big games, as it did last night.
"You feel successful as a coach, at least I do at this point in my career, if you can get your team to play up most of their games," Williams said. "In other words, play to their level, play a little better than they are maybe. That's a pretty good feeling, coaching-wise."
Which means much of last night was filled with warm fuzzies for Williams. He saw Hayes come off the bench and hit baskets that changed the course of the game. He saw Vasquez repeatedly drive the lane, and, rather than force shots, he kept kicking out to an open shooter. Williams saw Dino Gregory play great defense.
It didn't start out well for Maryland. The Terps looked lifeless from the opening tip. In fact, Landon Milbourne didn't even leave his feet when the official flipped the ball into the air to start the game.
N.C. State put together a 17-2 run and at one point led by 13 midway through the first half.
But Williams didn't worry. "I told them earlier when we were down some that we played too hard all year to not play with the same energy," he said.
Suddenly, Vasquez found Hayes, who drilled a three. Then Vasquez found him again, and Hayes hit another. And then Vasquez found him a third time, and for a third time, Hayes was all net.
Everyone in a Terps jersey - dazed and bemused just minutes earlier - fed off the momentum. Maryland used a 14-0 run to close the gap, and the Terps evened the score by the break.
"We really wanted to win this game," the coach said later. "There was no question in my mind. ... We wanted to win the game. That was never a factor, whether we were ready to play."
It's that kind of attitude and commitment the Terps need to take into tonight's game. And if there's to be a tomorrow for this team, the Terps will need to do it again. And then again.
In short, it's the key to remaining in the NCAA tournament picture, the only way they can keep a topsy-turvy season from fading away completely.