- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stitched in white block letters on the back of Maryland’s black practice shorts is the most basic of one-word slogans: “WIN.”

At this point, the Terrapins don’t have much of a choice.

Maryland (18-13) begins what it hopes will be a last-ditch salvo to save its slim NCAA tournament hopes tonight in a late showdown with Boston College (13-16) in the opening round of the ACC tournament.

Four losses in five games gradually bumped the sixth-seeded Terrapins from a tournament near-certainty to a borderline postseason candidate to likely NIT fodder. And the only thing that can change it is an extended push at Charlotte Bobcats Arena, starting with a victory over the reeling 11th-seeded Eagles.

“I know everybody says we’re in the NIT right now, and we are in the NIT right now,” sophomore guard Greivis Vasquez said. “That’s being realistic. But at the same time, we have a chance. If we win two games, you have to think about it.”

The Terps, though, have not cobbled together even a modest winning streak in more than a month. They stumble into the event with two rankling losses in a row, a second-half meltdown against Clemson and a sluggish setback at Virginia.

It is reasonable to muse whether the slide is irreversible. But the Terps looked loose during yesterday’s open practice session, with forward Dave Neal drawing hoots for an off-the-backboard dunk and Bambale Osby stunning everyone with a successful halfcourt heave to end the workout.

It was not a page-turning hour, but it hinted that the Maryland Terrapins might be ready to turn the page on what could be remembered as a forgettable late-season collapse.

“You have to let conference play go,” senior forward James Gist said. “It’s the ACC tournament. Whatever happened in conference play doesn’t even matter anymore.”

It is meaningful, though, for understanding precisely what sort of predicament Maryland has constructed for itself. Conventional wisdom suggests the Terps likely need to make it to Sunday’s final to have a chance for an NCAA tournament invitation, a situation few would have anticipated for the team a few weeks ago.

There are no shortage of explanations floated for Maryland’s problems of late. An inability to close out games — evidenced by six ACC losses in games the Terps led in the second half — is an obvious one. A flu bug spread around the team in the last month is another.

“When you lose, people think there’s this key to unlock what’s wrong with your team,” coach Gary Williams said. “A lot of times it’s just going back to work and doing the things you do well. Sometimes during the season you get away from things you do well, and you have to get back to them.”

Though it was hard to ever describe these Terps as a great team, they were a good one during a 10-2 midseason stretch. They beat North Carolina, ground out tight victories and led Duke at halftime.

“I don’t think our record is indicative of the type of team that we are,” Osby said. “We can be a great team. We have great three-fourths of a game, halves of a game. We just have to start putting whole games together. So if someone wants to say ‘Can you all win it?’ I say ‘Yeah, we can win it.’ ”

That would seem to be the surest way for the Terps to wash away a miserable month. Unlike North Carolina, Duke and Clemson (Maryland’s quarterfinal opponent should it advance), the Terps enjoy no guarantees as the Selection Sunday witching hour rapidly approaches.

And that means just one thing will solve their problems — winning.

“At this point of the stage, it’s all about winning,” Osby said. “You got to win or you’re going to put yourself in a dire situation. We haven’t won these last few weeks and we’ve put ourselves in an ugly situation. The other conference tournaments, all that matters, but our goal is to win the ACC championship.”

Today’s game

NO. 6 MARYLAND VS. NO. 11 BOSTON COLLEGE

When: 9:30 p.m.

Where: Charlotte (N.C.) Bobcats Arena

TV/radio: Chs. 20, 54, FM-106.7, FM-105.7, AM-570, AM-1300, Triple-X

Outlook: Maryland leads series 5-4, and the teams split two games this season. The Terrapins have invoked the program’s run to the ACC title as a No. 6 seed in 2004 this week, but Maryland has not escaped the quarterfinals since then. Maryland’s roster has 54 career points in the ACC tournament, the lowest total in the conference. Boston College’s Tyrese Rice averages 21.3 points and has provided 28.6 percent of the Eagles’ scoring, the largest production share of any player in the tournament.

Patrick Stevens

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