- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

Long after the floor was swept clean, well after players who lingered a little longer than usual finally decided to quit immersing themselves in the embrace of what just unfolded and trek into the midwinter, there remained a crackle in Comcast Center.

The buzz didn’t fade for hours after Maryland’s 88-85 defeat of No. 3 North Carolina on Saturday, and maybe it shouldn’t following one of the more remarkable victories for the program in the last five years.

Greivis Vasquez authored one of the most brilliant individual performances in school history, tossing up 35 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists for Maryland’s first triple-double since 1987. Coach Gary Williams juggled his foul-hindered rotation, pleaded for more from a effervescent crowd and wound up with another victory over the Tar Heels and their Hall of Fame coach, Roy Williams.

And suddenly, some of the weight built up over the last month as a result of internal squabbling and external potshots suddenly was a bit alleviated.

“Winning cures a lot of stuff, especially a big win like this against the No. 3 team in the country,” junior guard Eric Hayes said.

Amid all of it were exhales; life in and around Comcast Center was as trying of late as it ever was. In reality, it probably still is, so long as the Terps (17-9, 6-6 ACC) teeter on the precipice of NCAA tournament inclusion.

To be sure, Maryland is prominently in the discussion, though far from a sure thing with just less than three weeks until Selection Sunday. The Terps have two prominent victories (North Carolina and Michigan State) and the chance to pick up a couple more in the coming days (Duke and Wake Forest) at home.

Maryland’s set of losses aren’t especially damaging, though the setback against Morgan State last month was against a team outside the top 100 of the RPI. However, all of the Terps’ defeats came against teams with winning records, with all but Georgetown at least six games above .500.

“It puts us back on the map as an NCAA tournament team,” senior forward Dave Neal said. “We still have some games left, and we beat UNC, and now we get the No. 9 team in the country coming here in Wednesday. We’re in a great position to steal another win, and now we know we’re capable of beating another top-10 team.”

But only if Maryland continues its penchant for improving against teams with comparable or more talent. The Terps shrugged off a collapse at Miami last month to best the Hurricanes when they came to College Park on Jan. 31.

It was even easier to notice against North Carolina, which wasn’t nearly as successful from the perimeter the second time around. Nor did the Tar Heels take care to defend the outside, and Maryland connected on a season-high 13 3-pointers.

The obvious difference, though, was two individual performances, one merely impressive and the other transcendent.

Vasquez’s triple-double was a rare deed and is worthy of a mention among the great outings in program lore along with Juan Dixon’s 33-point night against Kansas in the 2002 Final Four, the frozen-in-time Len Bias steal and dunk in a 1986 upset at North Carolina, Joe Smith’s gargantuan 1995 games against Duke and Texas and John Gilchrist’s maestro performance in the 2004 ACC tournament.

Then there was guard Cliff Tucker, just three weeks removed from not even playing against Miami. He dropped 22 points on the Tar Heels, gleefully serving as the beneficiary of the ultimately fruitless attention paid to Vasquez’s drives.

“I think we’re right back in the hunt,” Tucker said. “With tournament talk, we can’t get too excited with Duke coming up.”

Tucker, like the rest of his teammates, seemed almost as relieved as he was excited. The Terps’ footing, so dependent on a signature victory, suddenly felt a little more secure after dumping North Carolina for the third straight season.

Wednesday - Maryland’s looming visit from a Duke team that unleashed a 41-point pounding last month at Cameron Indoor Stadium - provides the opportunity to solidify things even more.

“If we beat Duke, I don’t know how we can’t be talked about as an NCAA tournament team,” Neal said. “We’re back on the map. Teams know we can play basketball now.”

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