SPOKANE, WASH — Still dressed in his uniform, Varun Ram had wandered out of the Maryland locker room at the Spokane Arena after Sunday night's 73-60 win over 13th seed Hawaii to catch a glimpse of the second-round NCAA tournament game between Oregon and St. Joseph's.
The walk-on from Clarksville (River Hill), who had returned for his final year of eligibility in College Park as a graduate student, was a Maryland fan long before he joined the team and understood the significance of the program's first Sweet 16 appearance in 13 years.
Ram was clearly in the minority in the team's locker room.
"A lot of the guys aren't from Maryland and they're so young, they don't really think about it," Ram said. "We just feel like we're [good enough to be] a Sweet 16 team. To have that mindset that we haven't been a Sweet 16 team is not something we think about."
The fifth-seeded Terps had enough trouble beating both of its double-digit seeded opponents in the first two rounds without getting bogged down with the emotional baggage of a long-frustrated fan base and the media reminding them about the drought on a regular basis.
Maryland blew nearly all of an 18-point lead against South Dakota State on Friday before winning, 79-74, despite playing without sophomore guard Melo Trimble for the final minute after he had fouled out. Against the Rainbow Warriors on Sunday, the Terps used an impressive 19-2 run in the second half to turn around a three-point deficit.
Trimble, who grew up a Maryland fan in Prince George's County, said the burden of the 13-year absence from the Sweet 16 didn't play a factor in either game.
"Just go out there and play," Trimble said. "We want to celebrate after the game like we just did. A lot of teams [that were eliminated] gave up leads in the second half, we just wanted to play strong the whole game and not just worry about [not going to] the Sweet 16. We got past this and now we're going to the Sweet 16."
Senior forward Jake Layman had never really heard much about the drought until last year, when the Terps, seeded fourth, barely beat No. 13 seed Valparaiso to advance to the second round against fifth-seeded West Virginia. The Mountaineers knocked Trimble out of the game with a concussion and the Terps out of the tournament, 69-59.
Layman said the talk about Maryland not reaching the Sweet 16 since 2003 had never really been a topic of discussion among the players.
"I think, for us, if we were thinking about that, then our heads would be all messed up," Layman said. "I think we did a great job of focusing on one game at a time. I think [Sunday night] we showed a toughness than we hadn't shown all year."
Said junior forward Robert Carter Jr.: "We try to stay focused in the moment, try to think about each other and help each other get to the Sweet 16. We don't think about past teams. We know we have to play for them and everyone in the Maryland program, but we don't think about any individual accolades."
Maryland (27-8) could have a tough time reaching its first Elite 8 since 2002, the year the Terps won their only national championship, if the offensive execution doesn't improve dramatically against top-seeded Kansas (30-4) in the South Region semifinal Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.
The Terps might have set a record for the fewest 3-point shots made and the most attempted in a second-round game by a team that advanced to a Sweet 16. Maryland missed its first 15 3-pointers before Trimble made one during the game-breaking run, before finishing 1-for-18.
"Coach said to us, 'There's going to be one game [in the tournament] where we're going to have to guard and the shots won't fall, and that was tonight," said Layman, who missed all four of his 3-point attempts after making five of eight against South Dakota State.
Layman said the team felt "disrespected a little bit" for being shipped to the NCAA tournament's farthest outpost and then having to turn around and play Thursday in Louisville against a Kansas team ranked No. 1 nationally after the Terps spent most of the year in the Top 10.
"They stuck us all the way out here in Spokane, it felt like two away games a little bit," said Layman, who needs to play in two more games to break Juan Dixon's school record of 141 consecutive games.
Asked if reaching the Sweet 16 validates his decision to come back this season after briefly contemplating leaving to turn pro after last season, Layman said: "Losing that game last year, It feels like we're taking that next step forward. This team is dangerous. [Some teams] don't want to play us."
Having grown up on the Eastern Shore, junior center Damonte Dodd was somewhat aware of the long drought for a team that went to the Sweet 16 seven times in 10 seasons from 1994 though 2003 under Hall of Famer Gary Willliams. Dodd said that Turgeon did his best not to place any extra burdens of this year's team.
"I give all props to Coach Turgeon and to our fans," said Dodd, whose block helped fuel the big second-half run. "Our fans have always been with us since Day One and they said, 'Just take it one game of a time.'
"We just took it one game at a time and we're here."
Back in the Sweet 16.