Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez was slow to depart the locker room at Georgia Dome on Saturday, but on his way out he promised he would fondly remember his team’s season regardless of its Selection Sunday fate.
When the Terrapins popped up during the unveiling of the 65-team field, the junior had the luxury of joy, elation - and relief.
Maryland (20-13) capped its turbulent season with an NCAA tournament at-large invitation, scoring the No. 10 seed in the West regional and a Thursday date with seventh-seeded California (22-10) in Kansas City, Mo.
It was the second NCAA berth in three years for the Terps - and averted a fourth NIT appearance in five years. It was also arguably the most satisfying trip in some time for the Terps, who clearly didn’t enjoy the talent of some of their predecessors but still squeezed out an NCAA berth for the 13th time in coach Gary Williams’ 20 seasons.
“I know we didn’t win the championship, and I know people are like, ‘Oh, these guys made it to the tournament, and it’s not a big deal,’ ” Vasquez said. “For this family and this team, it is a big deal because we don’t have the most talented team. We don’t have a 6-10, 240-[pound] guy who can just dominate in the paint. We just have guys who are willing to work hard and do anything. That’s why this is so special.”
It was the biggest flourish in an unforgettable season for Maryland, which possessed an unconventional roster and diminished external expectations. Early blowout losses to Gonzaga and Georgetown - and later ones at Duke and Clemson - did little to suggest this season would be different than the recent past.
Yet it was. Maryland defeated both North Carolina and Wake Forest in the season’s final month, ensuring an at-large berth as the seventh ACC team in the field.
“I didn’t want them to not get rewarded for what they did,” Williams said.
Nor did players who remain befuddled at the turmoil and tension directed at Williams throughout the season. Maryland didn’t appear in the first bracket unveiled on national television Sunday night, but a roar erupted from the team lounge when the Terps appeared on the screen.
Williams dryly said it was he, not any of the players, who was happiest to see Maryland in the field. Sarcasm or not, it probably isn’t far from the truth.
“It looked like he was relieved and really happy at the same time,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “You could just see all the work he’s put into this team, and all the dedication he has to this team was very evident in the way he expressed himself after they said our names.”
Naturally, things didn’t go smoothly for the entire day. Maryland was considered a likely tournament team entering Sunday, but Mississippi State’s ugly upset of Tennessee in the SEC title game swiped away a tournament berth and cast greater doubt on the Terps’ chances.
Then came another stunner: Arizona, a team considered unlikely to earn an invitation, was the No. 12 seed in the first bracket unveiled. Just like that, another spot was gone.
“We got scared,” Vasquez said. “I got really nervous. You watch ESPN, you watch Joe Lunardi, you watch all those people talk and Arizona was out for everybody. You see their name, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, please.’ I said my prayers. I don’t care if we’re 15, just get us in.”
Not long after, the Terps finally got the call, and it prompted an outpouring among a team that scrapped its way into the field. Forward Dave Neal, the team’s lone senior, slammed down his clipboard, celebrated with his teammates and hugged Williams.