- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

All the momentum, excitement and promise built in 33 days of overachieving imploded in less than nine minutes in Minneapolis.

What a shame it was for Maryland's basketball team.

The Terps, with no scholarship seniors, improved steadily from Jan. 29 through March 1, earning an unexpected No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. But their season ended abruptly in Saturday's second round at the Metrodome.

Sixth-seeded UCLA destroyed the Terps 105-70, taking control of and putting away the game with a 31-4 run in 8:41 that bridged the first and second halves. Maryland (25-10), after showing the potential to reach its first Elite Eight since 1975, made an early exit.

Afterward, talk among fans and observers centered on Terps coach Gary Williams and his ability to coach postseason basketball. Criticisms ranged from ridiculous They should have played zone. to realistic They weren't tough enough.

"You can spend days second-guessing," Williams said yesterday after completing his 11th season with the Terps. "That's the great thing about coaching. I always do it with football you know, 'They should have run on that play.' But as a coach, you do the things that got you to a third seed, to 17th-ranked in the nation. You don't change. You're stupid if you do that."

Williams accepts the all-or-nothing attitude of the postseason. He understands why some fans are frustrated with Maryland's inability to get past the Sweet 16. He realizes that, at least in College Park, two Sweet 16s and five regular-season wins over top-five teams in the past four seasons are not enough.

However, one thing Williams cannot accept is the layman's criticism of his ability to coach. Presented with one particular knock Gary can't make adjustments Williams let his feelings known.

"I can coach with anybody in the country," Williams said. "You ask other coaches, people who know the game. You ask [Duke's] Mike Krzyzewski. You ask [Purdue's] Gene Keady. You ask [Syracuse's] Jim Boeheim. Those are the people I respect. Those are the people whose opinions I trust.

"That's what gets old. It's all the second-guessing. People are always saying something contrary if you lose. People in the profession know I'm one of the best tacticians in the game. Lawyers and doctors don't know. I don't want lawyers and doctors telling me how to do my job."

When the 1998-99 Terps closed with a regional semifinal loss to St. John's, the season was considered a disappointment despite a school-record 28 wins, a second straight trip to the Sweet 16 and a fourth trip there in six years.

The disappointment could be argued either way. Maryland had three seniors, though one (Obinna Ekezie) was injured for the NCAAs, and a future No. 2 overall NBA draft pick in junior Steve Francis. From the start of practice on Oct. 15, the squad was considered Maryland's big chance to get over the hump.

But there should be no such debate when people discuss the 1999-2000 season. These Terps created their own set of expectations by overachieving for those 33 days. Their season ended at the hands of a team that, for one night, was better than anything Division I has produced for a long time.

Among Maryland's accomplishments in 1999-2000:

• Finished second in the ACC after being picked fourth.

• Finished No. 17 in the Associated Press poll after starting unranked.

• Won 11 ACC games after starting 0-3 in the league.

• Won a school-record nine straight ACC games during the 33-day stretch.

• Beat Illinois and Kentucky, which eventually received No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, respectively, and narrowly lost at Temple, an eventual No. 2 seed.

• Won at then-No. 3 (now top-ranked) Duke, becoming the first ACC team to beat the Blue Devils since the 1998 ACC tournament title game.

• Reached the ACC title game for the first time under Williams.

• Placed two players (sophomore guard Juan Dixon and sophomore center Lonny Baxter) on the All-ACC first team for the third time in school history.

• Turned a true freshman point guard, Steve Blake, into the school's all-time leader in assists by a freshman.

"You think about the start of the year," Williams said. "If you had wrote we were going to be a No. 3 seed, people would have laughed at you. But that's what we did. We won 25 games [the fourth-most in school history]. You can put a lot on [Saturday] night, but you still have to look at what we did."

Ironically, it was the Feb. 9 win at Duke, the season's crowning achievement midway through the 33-day stretch, that made the Terps victims of their own success. Yesterday Williams compared Maryland's performance that night to UCLA's Saturday night.

"You get one of those a year," he said.

In fact, Bruins coach Steve Lavin told Williams that UCLA's performance was its best of the season even though the Bruins won at then-No. 1 Stanford just 14 days earlier. And yesterday Williams spoke his mind about the Bruins' talent:

"You look at one through nine [on the depth charts of Maryland and UCLA] we didn't have one player as athletic as them," Williams said. "Now you can say maybe we didn't get the players, but don't say I can't coach."

Actually, Maryland may have the players in 2000-2001. Junior swingman Byron Mouton, Tulane's leading scorer for two seasons, becomes eligible after sitting out this season. At least two freshmen, including highly touted big man Chris Wilcox, enter the program. And no players on scholarship leave provided forward Terence Morris rejects the lure of the NBA Draft and returns for his senior season.

Morris said Saturday night that he would begin making his decision. But regardless of Morris' return, it would be more fair to judge Williams by his postseason success next March, when he has an experienced core of players.

But the lawyers and doctors, as Williams calls them, won't do that. They'll lump Saturday's loss in with Maryland's 24 other finales since 1975 that ended before the NCAA's Elite Eight. They'll forget that UCLA played the game of the year, and that the Terps, who were probably overseeded, got thumped by the luck of the draw.

And that, more than the season imploding in a span of less than nine minutes, would be the ultimate shame for Maryland.

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