BLACKSBURG, Va. — Maryland’s basketball team always felt it would make the NCAA tournament no matter how many times it stumbled in recent weeks. But now the Terrapins are down to their last chance.
Maryland’s 86-76 loss to Virginia Tech yesterday before 9,847 at Cassell Coliseum sends the Terps into the ACC tournament’s opening round Thursday at MCI Center probably needing two victories and one upset to reach the NCAA tournament. Otherwise, barring an unlikely conference title, they’ll have to settle for the NIT after 11 straight trips to March Madness.
Coach Gary Williams conceded he’ll lobby NCAA selection committee members in coming days. However, the Terps (16-11, 7-9 ACC) have lost three straight and have beaten only one winning team over the last 34 days.
“You want facts?” Williams said. “The facts are we beat the No. 2 team [Duke] on their court. The facts are the same team that was in the top 10 we beat on our home court. We beat Memphis when they were 25th in the country. Some teams say they should get in without those wins. Now to counter that, you could say we had some bad losses. How that works we’ll see.”
Maryland will be the eighth seed in the ACC tournament. If Virginia beats Florida State today to gain the ninth seed, the Cavaliers will play Maryland in the opening round. Otherwise, the Terps will meet Clemson, which has defeated them twice.
Virginia Tech (15-12, 8-8) plays on Friday as the fourth or fifth seed. An N.C. State victory tonight against Wake Forest would send the Wolfpack against the Hokies. Otherwise, Virginia Tech would play Georgia Tech.
The Hokies’ astonishing .500 mark in their first ACC season makes Seth Greenberg the front-runner for ACC coach of the year.
Maryland never intimidated Virginia Tech, even after the Terps overcame a 10-point second-half deficit to tie with 10:02 remaining.
“They have a resiliency that is pretty special,” Greenberg said of his team. “All I’ve been hearing is, ‘Virginia Tech is fading. When Maryland wins, they’ll be in the [NCAA] tournament.’ I don’t think anyone thought we had a chance except those kids in the locker room.”
Once again Maryland’s frontcourt collapsed. Forwards Travis Garrison and Ekene Ibekwe combined for just five points and three rebounds after mustering only six points and five rebounds against North Carolina six days earlier. Virginia Tech outrebounded Maryland 45-33, with 19 offensive rebounds leading to 21 second-chance points.
“We’re not a good defensive team this year,” Williams said. “That hurts us. Every time we get on a run offensively, it seems like we can’t get a stop to get us over the top. … We couldn’t stop them when we tied them.”
Williams, who said he’ll pick his lineup for the ACC tournament opener following Wednesday’s practice, started forward James Gist over Ibekwe for the first time against Virginia Tech. The freshman scored 18 points, but did little defensively and had just four rebounds.
Maryland guard Chris McCray continued his recent hot streak with 18 points, while forward Nik Caner-Medley scored 12 and guard John Gilchrist 11. Guard Jamon Gordon led all five Hokies starters in double figures with 23 points.
Virginia Tech used runs of 7-0, 8-2 and 9-4 for a 45-37 halftime lead. The Hokies led by 13 midway through the half before the Terps countered with eight straight points. Still, Maryland missed several chances to close within two baskets before the break.
The Hokies stretched the lead to 56-46 before the Terps countered with a 9-1 run. Maryland finally caught Virginia Tech at 57-57 on Caner-Medley’s eight-footer with 10:02 remaining, but the Hokies then scored eight points in 25 seconds.
Maryland managed one more run, desperately trying to steal the game before a surprisingly hostile crowd. Six straight points by Gist closed Maryland within 74-72 with 2:36 remaining.
And then it was over before Maryland knew what happened. Virginia Tech went on a 12-1 run to celebrate a victory that might help it get into the NCAA tournament.
“We could have easily folded,” Greenberg said, “but I guess that is what this team is about — they find a way. At times it wasn’t pretty, but they find a way.”