ATLANTA -In the opening sequence of last night's game, Maryland sophomore Adrian Bowie lost a shoe on the court, a black Nike left alone in the paint as its counterpart scampered back on defense. There wasn't reason to think much of it.
But then it happened again, this time in the opening sequence of the second half. And this time, there was no way to ignore it. The metaphor siren was blaring. This wasn't simply a matter of Bowie not knowing how to tie his shoe. It was the proverbial glass slipper - March's most fashionable footwear - and as that shoe sat alone on the court, as Maryland prepared to build on its lead, there was only one question that mattered:
Will these scrappy Terps, not pretty enough to ever be mistaken for Cinderella, make it to the ball?
No one has punched their ticket to the dance, but with last night's 75-64 upset of Wake Forest in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Maryland not only played its way into today's semifinal against Duke, but the Terps also significantly strengthened their case for a spot in the NCAA tournament field.
Across the nation these past few days, school after school has watched its respective bubble pop. Providence, Northwestern, Miami and Kansas State. Then Arizona, Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico and Rhode Island. Plus Virginia Tech, Kentucky, South Carolina, Penn State and Florida.
But not Maryland.
This is a team that just a few days ago seemed doomed to go to the National Invitation Tournament and a tumultuous offseason of finger-pointing and scapegoating. As the final seconds ticked off the clock last night, as players bounced off one another's chests like bumper cars and launched celebratory screams to the rafters, they seemed to realize they now have as good a chance as many other fringe teams - your Creightons - for one of the precious few at-large bids still up for grabs.
A win today in the semifinals would seal it. Simply putting on a solid showing, though. could also sway the tournament selection committee, currently holed up in an Indianapolis conference room, munching popcorn and glued to a series of televisions.
What committee members saw of Maryland last night (if they were being honest and if they've been paying attention, it's what they've seen of the Terps all season) wasn't always pretty. But somehow after 40 minutes, as a strong contingent of red-clad fans chanted, "Gary! Gary!" from one corner of the dome, everything had come together.
Though he finished with 22 points, Greivis Vasquez's shooting wasn't always on target. At one point he was just 3-for-12 from the field. But it didn't seem to matter. He was doing the little things, making sharp passes and battling for rebounds. (In fact, he finished with nine assists and eight rebounds.)
For much of the game, the cold shooting hand seemed to touch much of the roster. One night after posting a career-high 21 points, Eric Hayes didn't make his first field goal until only seven minutes remained in the second half. As a team, the Terps were just 1-for-8 from behind the three-point arc in the first half. And Dave Neal struggled to find his stroke, finishing 1-for-5 from beyond the arc.
But the most shocking turn of events last night took place under the basket. In their previous meeting, the Demon Deacons out-rebounded the Terps an incredible 50-32. Led by Landon Milbourne's 11 rebounds, the Terps posted a 44-40 advantage last night, playing more physically than one of the conference's most physical teams.
"I noticed the last time we played, I wasn't moving very well," Milbourne said. "This time, I wanted to keep my feet moving every time the ball went up. I tried to at least go up there and try to get a rebound instead of watching the ball."
Don't expect the selection committee to get lost in the details of last night's game. On the postseason resume, if you can beat a good team such as Wake Forest, it doesn't really matter how it looks.
Last night's win marked the Terps' fourth this season against a school ranked among the nation's top 50 in the Rating Percentage Index. Importantly, it was the second such win away from home.
The Terps and their faithful will have much more reason to smile if Maryland can win just once more, if the Terps can grab that errant sneaker, err, glass slipper, lace it up tightly and take it to the dance.