Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gary Williams has been coaching basketball at Maryland for 20 seasons now, longer than some of the Terrapins players have been alive. That sort of tenure helps you survive the bad spots without gnashing your teeth and rending your garments.

His Terps mostly stunk up the joint Saturday at Comcast Center, escaping with a 68-61 victory against Georgia Tech only because the Yellow Jackets were just as putrid. It was hard to disagree at halftime when one spectator yowled, “The fans ought to get at least half their money back.”

As coaches will, Williams doggedly insisted at his postgame news conference that his 12-3 team did some good things, such as rallying smartly after trailing by 10 points with just under 10 minutes left. A bit later, talking with an old friend, Gary was somewhat more realistic.

“Look, we won, and that’s all that matters,” he said. “I’ll take it - I’ve seen a lot of teams win ugly before. What good does it do you to look good and lose?”

The man has a point. Maryland is 1-0 in the ACC, which now appears to lack a super team, heading into Wednesday night’s date at Miami. Yet the lackluster effort against Georgia Tech, coming after an astounding loss to Morgan State, reinforces a suspicion that the Terps are in for a long, cold winter in terms of ACC combat and a spot in March Madness.

It has been nearly seven years since Maryland won the NCAA championship and almost five since it grabbed an ACC title. Three of the past four seasons have ended with unsatisfying appearances in the NIT, and these Terps well might be headed that way again.

Alumnus Williams has achieved wonderful things in two decades since returning to College Park. His overall record of 409-218 at Terptown speaks for itself, and he is the sixth-winningest active coach in Division I with 617 victories. Yet no team leader can make chicken salad out of chicken feathers - as a former Washington Senators manager once approximately said upon being dismissed - and these Terps seem to lack the talent to move very far onward and upward.

The only reason they won Saturday is the fickle finger of fate, plus Georgia Tech’s own drastic descent since reaching the national championship game five years ago. In the first half, the teams staged a battle, if that’s the word, that might have embarrassed a pair of Ivy League outfits.

While the less than capacity crowd writhed in boredom, agony or both, here’s how matters went: Shoot, miss, foul, turnover - and more of the same.

When it came to putting the ball in the basket, you might have thought the darned hoops had lids. For example, Maryland shot 25 percent (10-for-40) in the half. Five fans selected at random from the stands probably could have done better.

I don’t know what Raycom TV commentators Tim Brant and Dan Bonner showed in the way of halftime highlights - perhaps the spine-tingling selection of Chevy Chase Bank’s Fan of the Game. Or maybe Chevy Chase himself, stumbling through his famous impersonation of President Gerald Ford on “Saturday Night Live.”

Of course, even badly played games can be exciting when the teams head toward the final buzzer in close proximity. The onlookers awakened in time to whoop it up properly as Maryland used a 13-2 run to take a one-point lead with seven minutes remaining and then killed off the Yellow Jackets at the foul line in the final minute or so.

“Here we go again in the ACC - the greatest,” Williams insisted afterward. He said it with a straight face, too.

Senior forward Dave Neal assessed the Terps’ prospects candidly in the locker room: “We definitely can play better, shoot better, be more patient. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Amen, brother.

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