- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

BUFFALO, N.Y. — D.J. Strawberry removed his sneakers for the final time as a college player yesterday, his Maryland team’s many miscues probably floating in his mind.

The defensive meltdowns as the shot clock wound down.

The inability to establish a faster pace or contain the outside shot. An inopportune offensive foul in the last minute. A bobbled pass that doomed any chance of taking a game-tying shot in the final second.

It added up to a 62-59 loss to Butler at HSBC Arena for the fourth-seeded Terrapins (25-9), who fell a game short of their first regional semifinal appearance since 2003.

“This is all about us,” Strawberry said. “We let this game get away. We’re just going to have to live with that.”

It was a sour note for Maryland to conclude its yo-yo-like season. The Terps returned to the NCAA tournament after a two-year hiatus, and did so after a miserable 3-6 start to ACC play. That’s a solid legacy to possess, even if it doesn’t include an extended run in March.

“We had to work really hard to be sure that we would make the NCAA tournament coming off two years not being in it,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “We were 2-5 in the league and we had to win seven straight games to get tied for third, so this is really tough today.”

A.J. Graves scored 19 points for No. 5 Butler (29-6), which advanced to the Midwest regional semifinals and a meeting Friday with either Florida or Purdue.

Maryland couldn’t extend its season by a week, and there is no shortage of plays at the root of its problems. Yet the final minute was particularly excruciating.

The Terps trailed 61-59 when forward Ekene Ibekwe tipped Julian Betko’s inbound pass to force a turnover with 54 seconds left. Yet when Maryland tried to work it into Strawberry for a tying basket, he rammed into Butler’s Brandon Crone and was called for a charge with 40.6 seconds remaining.

“I can’t comment on the calls,” Williams said. “We need the money at Maryland.”

The Terps eschewed the chance to foul Butler on its next possession because Williams believed Maryland could capitalize on its rebounding edge (37-23) and grab an errant shot. Betko missed a 3-pointer, but guard Mike Green snagged the board and then split two free throws for a 62-59 lead.

The Terps had a final inbound play with less than a second remaining, but Mike Jones (game-high 21 points) bobbled the pass and time expired, prompting Butler’s players to celebrate in front of an adoring throng while Ibekwe buried his head in his jersey on the bench.

With better perimeter defense, the Terps wouldn’t be in the nascent stages of planning for next season. The Bulldogs shot 12-for-26 from the 3-point line, overcoming their lack of size and speed with an influx of outside shots.

Some were particularly ill-timed for the Terps.

Crone hit a 23-footer as the shot clock expired to bump Butler’s lead to 54-48, and Graves’ 3-pointer with 2:11 remaining came after a kickout of an offensive rebound.

“No disrespect to Butler, but there’s only one way they can beat us, and that exact thing happened,” center Will Bowers said. “We didn’t guard the 3-point line and allowed them a bunch of open looks after they ran the shot clock down. They hit the open 3s, which they’re capable of. It’s our fault for letting that happen.”

Maryland had other problems. It fell behind 31-20 late in the first half before scoring five points before the break. Strawberry was limited to eight points, though he refused to blame a cold he battled for the last few days for his shaky play.

The Terps couldn’t generate the transition opportunities they needed to exploit the methodical Bulldogs, besides an 11-0 stretch early in the second half that provided a short-lived lead. And Butler’s incessant ability to find its forwards open on the perimeter was particularly devastating.

“Graves, he’s a good player, but he wasn’t killing us,” guard Greivis Vasquez said. “It was the big guys.

“It wasn’t our big guys’ fault. They were helping. I think we just weren’t tough enough to play defense today. It’s our fault and it’s tough and frustrating.”

Vasquez could have another chance to play in the tournament in his final three seasons. The same is not true for Strawberry and five other seniors, who became the first class to leave Maryland without a regional semifinal appearance since 1993.

“We didn’t want it to end like this and we didn’t want it to end here,” Strawberry said. “I can’t really look back right now. I’m just so down that it’s over and it’s not the way we wanted it to end. We had bigger plans for this year and we won’t be able to go on now.”

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