- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Mo. | It all felt so right - the jubilant locker room, the double-digit victory and the date in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

It was more than a wee bit unlikely, but it’s also becoming much more believable.

As Maryland rolled past California 84-71 on Thursday afternoon at Sprint Center, the Terrapins moved within a victory of another impressive feat: the program’s first trip to the tournament’s second weekend since 2003.

“I’d like to say it’s how it’s supposed to be, but there were a lot of doubts throughout the season,” guard Eric Hayes said. “For anybody to think we would be in the second round right now, I’m sure they would have thought we were crazy. We all knew we were capable of this; it was just a matter of us putting it all together.”

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Maryland (21-13), the West Region’s No. 10 seed, will meet second-seeded Memphis (31-3) on Saturday afternoon in an attempt to extend a season that had all the looks of ending with the bitterness of an NIT berth just two weeks ago.

But timing is a funny thing. The Terps produced perhaps their best overall game at the most ideal moment last week, stunning Wake Forest in the ACC tournament. And with Thursday’s meeting with the similarly constructed Golden Bears (22-11), Maryland came through with a brief burst precisely when it was required.

After haggling with seventh-seeded California for much of the game - fending off the Golden Bears, permitting them to draw closer, swapping the lead from time to time - and receiving plenty from Greivis Vasquez (27 points), the Terps demonstrated precisely why they have extracted so much from a team admittedly less talented than the bunch relegated to the NIT a year ago.

Hayes and Landon Milbourne stepped out and drilled consecutive 3-pointers. What was close throughout suddenly was a little comfortable, and Maryland needed little time to finish off Mike Montgomery’s first California team.

“Those 3-point shots we made at that time of the game were huge,” Vasquez said. “They completely changed the game.”

The offensive improvement lent Maryland the opportunity to gamble at the other end. The Golden Bears began the tournament as the nation’s top 3-point shooting team, but the Terps pestered them into a 7-for-24 night.

It expended plenty of energy but was a necessity so long as things remained tight. Yet the Terps’ 13-2 burst gave them a 63-53 edge and some room to maneuver.

“It was a gamble,” said coach Gary Williams, who won his ninth straight first-round game. “The score was close, and they made some 3s down the stretch but not enough to really hurt us because we started to score well once we went to zone, and that changed the game.”

It was also an acknowledgment, however tacit, that the Golden Bears’ greatest strength was not particularly useful against another perimeter-oriented bunch committed to a solid defensive performance. Cal guard Jerome Randle scored 14 points but was bottled up in the second half. Forward Theo Robertson scored 22 but committed five turnovers and did little from the outside.

The Terps probably couldn’t have contained both two months ago - and surely would not have maintained a lead so securely. In this case, they simply received some help from some secondary options. Dave Neal (15 points) swiftly tossed up a layup off an inbound pass. Dino Gregory had a pair of second-chance baskets in less than a minute to extend the lead to 15.

The Terps were never seriously threatened again.

“Once we got that cushion, we were playing our best basketball at that time and getting stops,” Hayes said. “We were rebounding and making the right plays.”

Maryland has played arguably its best basketball of the season in the past four games, a stretch covering three victories and an ACC tournament semifinal loss to Duke. It was a sequence few saw coming, and even the Terps can appreciate the improbability of how they have added life to their season in the past eight days.

“When I actually get to think about, it’s going to be crazy,” Bowie said. “A lot of people doubted us at the start of the season and thought we’d go to the NIT and things like that. I’m just glad we worked so hard during the preseason and the season to get better.”

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