- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

TAMPA, Fla. — It felt like a spring day outside the St. Pete Times Forum yesterday. Inside, though, there was an unsettling reminder of a mid-winter memory the Maryland basketball team thought was long since retired.

The fifth-seeded Terrapins reverted to some of the habits that cost them in the first half of the conference season, dropping a 67-62 ACC tournament game to 12th-seeded Miami to earn an earlier-than-anticipated flight back home.

Maryland (24-8) had its seven-game winning streak snapped by the league’s last-place team in almost the exact same way the Hurricanes (12-19) upended the Terps at Comcast Center on Jan. 10. Miami controlled the offensive glass, forced its share of turnovers and capitalized on a zone defense Maryland was too impatient to work around until it was too late.

For their part, the Terps didn’t back down from a harsh assessment of their performance in their first loss in more than a month.

“We just didn’t play hard,” freshman guard Greivis Vasquez said. “We didn’t play our game. I don’t think they’re better than us. We weren’t ready to play. We just didn’t run our offense hard. We didn’t rebound the ball well. It’s just disappointing.”

At one time this season, it would have fit perfectly in a pattern of inconsistent outings. But after Maryland strung together so many solid performances in a row — so much so it was considered one of the pre-tournament favorites — it is jarring only because it seems out of place.

The Terps struggled from the perimeter (3-for-18 on 3-pointers) and from the foul line (15-for-26). They were outrebounded 42-34 by an undermanned team, including yielding 19 offensive rebounds to help Miami extend possessions that often ran deep into the shot clock.

“They were able to control the tempo of the game,” coach Gary Williams said. “We were very impatient in the first half. We’re good when we go inside-out and we looked for the jump shot first today.”

It was one of the few times all year the Terps had virtually no pressure to perform, and they handled the new experience poorly. It wasn’t like the 8-0 start, which served as a catalyst for greater expectations, nor the struggles in January and early February when an NCAA tournament berth seemed questionable at best.

The pressure-free days are now over for the Terps, whose season will end after their next loss.

“Maybe too much attention,” Vasquez hypothesized. “We just have to find a better way. We came from the bottom and now we’re at the top and people are going to give you credit right now because you’re playing good. Now we get here and lose so they’re probably going to say ‘I don’t know if they’re going to make it to the NCAA tournament.’ That’s the way it is.”

Vasquez laughed quietly at the end, since the Terps will clearly be one of the 65 teams in the field when it is announced Sunday night. But there was no satisfaction after allowing Miami to secure a 23-8 edge on second-chance points and build a significant early lead.

The Terps showed no interest in making extra passes, even after Miami switched to a zone after point guard Anthony Harris encountered foul trouble. The Hurricanes took their first 10-point lead with 8:44 remaining in the first half, and it hovered around there until Miami entered halftime up 37-24.

“We were pressing a little bit in the first half,” guard D.J. Strawberry said. “We really weren’t in that situation in a while when we were down that many in the first half. We thought we were going to come back and it would be pretty easy, and it wasn’t like that.”

The Terps tried to change whatever they could. They discarded their bright new shoes at the break and gradually whittled the deficit to a manageable level.

But they never solved their rebounding woes, and Miami continued to find ways to score on second, third and even fourth chances.

Maryland was within 62-60 when Strawberry slipped down the sideline and swiped the ball from Harris. But on the next possession, his pass to Bambale Osby was bobbled and the Hurricanes made a free throw at the other end. The teams then traded a James Gist dunk and a pair of free throws before Vasquez and Eric Hayes missed 3-pointers in the waning seconds.

Moments later, the Terps shuffled back to the locker room, consigned to missing out on one of the championships they wanted to collect over the span of a month. Their final shot begins late next week, with yesterday a fresh reminder of the dangers of producing just one poor performance late in the season.

“This doesn’t mean anything come next week,” Williams said. “Next week is next week. We have to play better than we did today, there’s no doubt about it. But I know we can so it’s a matter of getting it done.”

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