- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

The tombstone for the Maryland basketball team’s season was delivered when the Terrapins were excluded from the NCAA tournament a week ago after an unremarkable regular season.

Early yesterday afternoon at Comcast Center, the Terrapins chiseled the epitaph to their lost year in a 87-84 loss to Manhattan. The Terps (19-13) were undone by all their usual maladies as well as an unmistakable disinterest for much of their first-round NIT game against the ecstatic Jaspers (20-10).

There were the turnovers (20), the bone-headed decisions and a fairly slow start. There was the shaky perimeter defense (nine 3-pointers allowed), sluggish play and insecure ballhandling.

In essence, it was Maryland’s entire forgettable season encapsulated on one miserable day.

Thus endeth a year that began with talk of redemption and an NCAA tournament berth and instead wound up even more disappointing than its dysfunctional predecessor. That team at least regrouped from a late-season slide to win three NIT games before bowing out in the semifinals.

“This whole year is embarrassing,” senior forward Nik Caner-Medley said. “Not making the NCAA tournament is embarrassing. … At the end of the day, you only have control over what you can do to bring to the team. Everybody has to do some things next year to bring more to the table.”

It was a thoroughly appropriate denouement to a season that began unraveling in January with two ugly losses in conference play, senior forward Travis Garrison’s arrest on misdemeanor assault and sex offense charges and the academic-related suspension of then-leading scorer Chris McCray on Jan. 23.

The Terps did just enough in the next seven weeks to maintain a plausible level of hope, going 6-8 without McCray only to be shut out of the NCAA tournament. Maryland initially declined an NIT bid before tournament officials informed the school it had committed to play host to three rounds.

Nix that, one round. And really, it was one round too many for a team clearly still smarting from what it perceived to be a Selection Sunday snub.

“We thought we should have made it and we were unhappy about it,” junior forward Ekene Ibekwe said. “If you’re unhappy about something, you’re not going to really be too happy about doing anything else.”

Added Caner-Medley: “If we had played with a little more passion in terms of wanting to win, then we would have played better. Obviously, the game was more important to them.”

Perhaps the sparse crowd of 4,761 for the rare morning start ensured a far from engaging environment. There were no more than 200 fans in the upper level, and a small, hearty contingent of students showed up while the rest of their cohorts began spring break in more pleasant places than a two-thirds empty arena.

Despite some early sloppiness, the Terps were tied at 30 late in the first half before the Jaspers went on a 17-5 run that frazzled Maryland coach Gary Williams so much he sent walk-on Gini Chukura onto the floor just before the break.

The Terps cut it to 49-45 early in the second half, but their defense failed them for one final time. Manhattan’s Jeff Xavier (31 points) had eight points in a 12-2 spurt and Maryland didn’t get within a possession until 1:13 was left.

“You get behind like that and you’re hoping,” Williams said. “I hate to coach hoping. I hope we make a good shot, I hope we make a good play here. Just play. Play solid. Just come out and play at a level. Here it is and this is as good as we are and if you can stop us, great. But if you can’t, we’re going to play a this level the whole game. We didn’t do that today.”

The clearly vexed Williams’ ire grew even greater as the final minutes of the season trickled away, once throwing a ball at Caner-Medley’s feet after a particularly irksome play and at other times shooting forlorn and angry glares away from the action.

By the time Ibekwe had missed two free throws with 33.4 seconds left with the Terps down 82-79 and seldom-used Manhattan reserve Franck Traore made his first free throws of the season moments later, the anger hardly mattered.

Neither did Maryland senior Travis Garrison’s first double-double (21 points and 12 rebounds) since Dec. 7 in his much-unwanted second senior night. Nor did the fact the Jaspers were down to their final five players after four men fouled out.

Ultimately, as Maryland was staring at its ignominious conclusion, it was clear next year was already more important to the Terps than the woeful finish of this season. Four freshmen, including point guard Eric Hayes, arrive next fall and Caner-Medley, Garrison and reserve guard Sterling Ledbetter depart.

The Terps will undoubtedly have a new look. Whether they have a new attitude — as returning players earnestly promised yesterday — and better results is less certain.

“We have the opportunity to be a good basketball team next year, but it has to start in April,” Williams said. “It can’t wait until October.”

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