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8 Upper

Hard Shells

By Tom Scocca | Posted 3/8/2000

At first, the fact that the University of Maryland men's basketball team almost beat Virginia on March 4 seemed unremarkable. From the conference-tournament final against North Carolina State in 1974 down to the abortive rally against North Carolina two months ago, the Terrapins have built a rich tradition of almost winning. What the four-corners offense is to North Carolina, what the hard foul is to Clemson, the almost-win is to Maryland.

But this time, as the Cavaliers eked out an 89-87 overtime win, there was something unusual, maybe unprecedented, about almost winning. The Terps blew a 12-point lead early in the second half, blew a four-point advantage with less than 90 seconds to go in overtime, blew another four-point lead in OT. Three times, when a clutch shot could have settled the game, they fumbled the ball away. All this was bad, and frequently gut-wrenching to watch. Yet in the end, it was oddly painless.

There is, of course, no analgesic quite like a nine-game conference winning streak. When the Terps went down to Virginia, they had already beaten all their Atlantic Coast Conference foes -- consecutively, no less -- and sewn up second place in the ACC and a pretty high seed in the NCAA tournament. The stakes were remarkably low.

Virginia, meanwhile, needed a win to secure third in the league and shore up its NCAA credentials. The Cavaliers played with the blind hustle reserved for truly desperate teams: hurling themselves into traffic, grappling for every loose ball, and, when nothing else worked, throwing punches at Terps in clinches. Few teams, even the best ones, can expect to prevail on the road against that sort of back-to-the-wall frenzy.

The referees looked more than charitably on Virginia's efforts, ringing up 31 Maryland fouls (to the host's 22). The calls were bizarre individually (a Virginia player tackled Steve Blake after a steal and got credit for a held ball; Terence Morris brushed past a defender and got called for his fifth foul) and a bad joke in the aggregate. By the final minute, Morris, Lonny Baxter, and Danny Miller had fouled out and Juan Dixon, Mike Mardesich, and Tahj Holden were carrying four fouls.

And still, the Terps almost put Virginia away. When the Cavs stormed back to tie the game just before halftime, Maryland coolly dropped five unanswered points on them. In overtime, with their whole starting front line on the bench, the Terps still had the lead in the final minute. If Dixon had taken and made one more shot -- an open 8-footer in the lane, his bread-and-butter shot, which he inexplicably declined in favor of an off-target pass toward Mardesich -- they would have won despite it all.

Regrets, though, are beside the point. Nobody but Duke ever sweeps through the ACC schedule without getting beaten at some point. The Terps had a bit of an off night; Virginia kept battling and pulled off the upset. But that's what it was: an upset. The better team lost. No big deal.

This is an alien experience for Maryland fans. Sure, the Terps slipped a couple notches in the national rankings, and their chance of being a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs grew slimmer. But this is not a team that rises and falls on reputation, like an Internet stock. Other Terps teams, at this point, would be making strange rattling sounds as their confidence and their execution begins to crumble. This team seems as blithely unshakable now as it did in rolling up those nine straight wins.

After the Terps beat Duke on Feb. 9, I floated the theory that they owed their success to their thinned-out lineup, which prevents coach Gary Williams from running his favorite dumb strategies. I still like the theory, but there's something more here. These Terps are not just avoiding the usual ghastly fuck-ups -- they're getting better.

This was not supposed to happen, not after they lost four starters from last year's Sweet 16 squad, including No. 2 NBA pick Steve Francis. But Francis turns out not to be such a loss. If he'd stayed in College Park for his senior year, he would be playing point guard and leading the team in scoring. Instead, those responsibilities are split between Blake and Dixon. And between the two of them, they're accomplishing more than Francis would have. Dixon is a better shooter than Francis, and by playing pure shooting guard he gets better shots. And at the point, freshman Blake is flourishing. Earlier this year he didn't seem to know where to stand on the floor. Now, with the Terps working out of a half-court offense, he moves with surety -- loose-jointed, feeling the play the way a body-surfer feels the swells. He lacks Francis' springiness and the chin-first assertiveness of the now-graduated Terrell Stokes, but in his first year he's already a better passer than either.

Blake and Dixon's confidence is contagious, up and down the lineup. Against Virginia, with Dixon running cold, Miller stepped up for a career-high 20 points. Mardesich and Holden -- a confirmed bench-warmer and a freshman, respectively -- combined for 50 minutes and 10 rebounds in relief of the foul-plagued Baxter and Morris.

I've complained plenty about Williams' coaching in the past, but this year he seems to have figured out what he has, and he is thriving right along with his underaged, inexperienced team. The things he's always failed to do, he's suddenly doing -- beating Duke, defeating Wake Forest on the road, winning games down the stretch, when his Maryland teams usually fade. Now comes the ACC Tournament, of which he's never made the final (let alone won), and the NCAAs, where he's never been past the round of 16. It's a good time for the Terps to be breaking with tradition.

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