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'That was just Cliff': Tucker remembered by Terps family, friends at memorial service

COLLEGE PARK —

Gary Williams knew Cliff Tucker was different when he started to yell at him.

The former longtime Maryland men’s basketball coach noticed it during a workout early in Tucker’s freshman season. “I get mad in practice,” Williams joked Thursday, and his target on this day was Tucker. Normally, he said, when Williams got mad, the Terps would avoid eye contact. They’d look up at the rafters.

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When Williams got on Tucker, his teammates looked back at their coach, as if they’d all been insulted. They were upset with him for yelling at Tucker. He’d been at the school for only a few months, and older teammates already had come to love the bubbly newcomer from El Paso, Texas, just as children who visited practice came to love Tucker, just as Williams came to love Tucker.

He stopped to compose himself.

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“It's been a tough week for everybody,” he said.

About 150 family members, friends and well-wishers attended a memorial service Thursday at Maryland’s Memorial Chapel for Tucker, who died in a single-vehicle accident May 28 as he was returning to his home in El Paso.

"It just kind of hit hard because I'd just talked to him," Dominique Hamilton said of Cliff Tucker's death.

Investigators said the tread on a tire of the van that Tucker was riding in separated, causing the vehicle to lose control and roll. Tucker, who was not wearing a seat belt, was pronounced dead at the scene along with two other passengers. He was 29.

Tucker's wife, Genesis Soto, 29, and daughter, Andrea Soto, 3, were injured in the accident and are still hospitalized.

At a vigil Sunday in El Paso, the coach of his alma mater, Chapin High School, announced that Tucker’s No. 21 jersey would be worn only by the player on the team deserving of such an honor. On Thursday, some in attendance honored Tucker’s Terps career by wearing his jersey. Among those in the processional marking the start of the late-morning service was a man wearing a white Maryland No. 24 jersey — Tucker’s number — with the word “UNCLE” across the nameplate on the back.

Joining them were members of the Maryland basketball family, a group helmed by Williams, who gifted Tucker’s son, Dallas, his 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season-championship ring. Guard Eric Hayes and Dino Gregory (Mount Saint Joseph), teammates with Tucker on the Terps squad that shared the 2009-10 ACC regular-season championship, greeted visitors at the front of the chapel. Mark Turgeon sat with Bruno Fernando, Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) and Joshua Tomaic toward the back during the two-hour service. Sean Mosley (St. Frances) was in attendance. So was former assistant Chuck Driesell.

Few were perhaps as close to Tucker as former assistant Keith Booth, who opened a lengthy tribute by likening their relationship to that of a father and son’s. He recalled that Tucker’s dream as a kid was “to be a Maryland Terp,” a goal he pursued with such focus that his family would plan its summer vacation around the program’s summer camp.

Cliff Tucker, who hit one of the most memorable game-winning 3-pointers in Maryland basketball history, died Monday in car accident in Texas. He was 29.

It was there that Tucker caught the staff’s eye, impressing Williams and Booth with his athleticism and skill on the court and selflessness off it. Tucker was popular with his fellow campers, Booth said, but always more interested in them than himself. He’d ask where they were from, whom their favorite basketball player was.

A buzzer-beating shot against Georgia Tech in 2010 came to define Tucker’s time with the Terps, but having a career in College Park was just one of his dreams, Booth said. He also wanted to graduate, which he did, and be the best father possible. “Mission accomplished, Cliff,” Booth said.

In another emotional tribute, Tracy Bayer acknowledged that she didn’t think that “there are any words that can truly express what Cliff meant to me.” But he had never said no when she asked a favor of him, so she tried anyway.

Bayer used to work as the at-risk coordinator for the El Paso Independent School District, of which Chapin High is a member, and kept in touch with Tucker after moving on to an elementary-school teaching job. At a Career Day event with her first-grade class, she introduced Tucker to her students. To Bayer and her class, it was as if a rock star had shown up. Students wanted autographs.

Bayer didn’t have the pens and paper handy, so she left for a few minutes in search of supplies. But there were markers around, and when she returned, she found they’d been put to use.

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On the arms of over two dozen kids was Tucker’s autograph.

“That was just Cliff,” she said, and she smiled.

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