- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Maryland faces a defining moment tonight. Either the Terrapins beat Virginia Tech to regain momentum in the season’s waning weeks or a 12th straight NCAA tournament bid will be seriously jeopardized.

The Terps (13-7, 4-5 ACC) face ACC newcomer Virginia Tech (12-8, 5-4) for the first time since 1991 tonight at Comcast Center seeking a quick turnaround following losses at Clemson and Miami. Maryland must win four of its final seven games to finish 8-8 in the ACC.

Only three of 59 conference teams with eight wins since 1992 haven’t reached the NCAA tournament. With No. 7 Duke looming on Saturday and No. 2 North Carolina on Feb. 27, Maryland might have to nearly sweep the remainder of its schedule to earn an NCAA invitation.

“Teams can change,” coach Gary Williams said. “One game can change a team in how they think and feel about themselves to give them confidence in how they play against a ranked team. … [Conversely], if you lose tomorrow night’s game, the season’s not over. Look at last year [when the Terps won the ACC tournament after a 7-9 regular-season mark].”

It’s a crossroad the Terps didn’t expect to encounter after beating then-No. 2 Duke and then-No. 22 Georgia Tech in their last two games in January. It’s also a tougher opponent than expected as Virginia Tech’s five conference wins already are more than projected after moving from the Big East. The Hokies come off an 83-63 loss to No. 6 Wake Forest on Saturday and lost 100-65 at Duke on Jan. 30. However, Virginia Tech earlier won four straight over Clemson, N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Virginia.

“It’s a bounce back game for Maryland,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “It’s a bounce back game for us.”

Forgetting two straight poor efforts won’t be easy for Maryland, though. The Terps seemed stunned after the loss to Clemson and even more depressed after the Miami defeat. Players weren’t made available to the media yesterday but admitted concern in the locker room Saturday.

“You have to separate whatever went on before and concentrate on this game,” Williams said. “You just want to win. You’re always concerned when you lose. Now you just want to put that behind you and win. You can’t do anything about those two games, but you can do something about [Virginia Tech].”

Several NCAA tournament forecasters still project the Terps to receive a low seed. With seven games remaining, Williams knows repeating last year’s late run to take the ACC tournament title and a fourth seed in the NCAA tournament is possible. However, he is reluctant to rely on past success to inspire the current roster.

“We have to create our own identity,” he said. “Last year, there was no guarantee we were going to do that at the end. We just had to keep fighting and hope something would happen. We can still make it happen. If we win [over Virginia Tech] we’ll be 5-5 in the league. … You can’t worry about if somebody’s says you’re [in or out of the NCAA tournament]. I’ve never worried about those things.”

Maryland forward Ekene Ibekwe probably will miss his second straight game after team officials discovered his lingering back problem was caused by a cracked rib. The absence of the Terps’ top rebounder hurt Maryland in its 75-73 overtime loss at Miami on Saturday. Coupled with the season-ending knee injury to guard D.J. Strawberry, the Terps’ depth has been severely tested. Though several other players are nursing nagging injuries, Williams refused to blame the recent slump on the team’s poor health.

“I’m not going to get cards from other coaches in the league telling me ‘I hope your players get better,’ ” Williams said.

Fourth-place Virginia Tech has become a factor in the ACC race. The Hokies also play Virginia, Miami and N.C. State in the final weeks with all four teams vying with Maryland for the ACC tournament’s fourth seed.

The Hokies suddenly have jumped from a sleepy program that gained little notice to one with 17 televised games. ESPN has filmed a show about the program, and the last four home games sold out at Cassell Coliseum after years of small crowds.

“Most of our fans were raised in the geographic footprint of the ACC so it’s exciting for us,” Greenberg said. “They can relate to North Carolina, Maryland and N.C. State.”


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