- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE | Gary Williams called a play. Greivis Vasquez was uncertain of what was afoot and called for something else in the final seconds of the ACC finale.

In the balance was the security of Maryland’s basketball season, a journey perpetually fraught with peril that arrived at another hazardous juncture Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena.

Vasquez settled for a jumper and missed, setting into motion the latter stages of a miserable dagger for the Terrapins‘ postseason chances.

The chaotic ending preceded Maryland’s humbling walk to the locker room after a 68-63 loss at Virginia, a stunning setback for a team that had avoided inexplicable losses for two months.

“I take responsibility on that play,” said Vasquez, whose team squandered a 13-point first-half lead. “I should be able to run a good play, and I got confused and I didn’t know what we were running. I take it upon myself. That play was on me. The whole game, we need eight, seven guys ready to play. I don’t think it happened tonight.”

And of all games for it to happen to Maryland (18-12, 7-9 ACC), which had a chance to secure a .500 league record, the No. 7 seed in this week’s conference tournament and a third true road victory as the regular season concluded, this was probably the worst.

More importantly, a crucial element of the Terps’ navigation of conference play was the absence of a befuddling loss, the sort of defeat offering a concise and cogent argument against NCAA tournament inclusion. Maryland picked that up Saturday, losing to an inferior Virginia team on the final weekend of the regular season for the second straight year.

Sure, Mamadi Diane dropped a season-high 23 points on Maryland. And yes, the Cavaliers (10-17, 4-12) switched to a zone for much of the final 30 minutes to confound the impatient Terps.

This day, though, was about Maryland and its inability to steer clear of the pitfalls that it had impressively veered around for much of the season. It was about, as Vasquez said, how the Terps “just didn’t play hard.”

“We’re 7-8 and had a chance to win and go 8-8, and [if] you can’t get excited to go for 40 minutes, I question your love for basketball,” forward Dave Neal (15 points) said. “We can’t use that as an excuse. We should have come out here and played harder.”

Whether the Terps were unrelenting early or coasted a bit after building a 21-8 lead, it didn’t change the reality they erased a seven-point deficit in a little more than a minute. Maryland tied it at 61-61 when Eric Hayes connected on a 3-pointer (after six earlier misses) with 1:45 left.

Neal has an opportunity for a go-ahead layup the next time down the floor and missed, setting up Diane to made a 3-pointer on the next possession to give Virginia a 64-61 lead.

Then came a potentially season-deciding play. Williams, figuring the Cavaliers would remain in a zone, called for a screen-and-roll to counteract that defense. Vasquez, watching Virginia settle into man-to-man, shouted for something different.

The confusing aftermath was an off-balance Vasquez shot, a deft save by Virginia’s Jamil Tucker and Mike Scott’s march to the foul line for a pair of free throws to help finish off Maryland.

“It was a little bit confusing because we didn’t know if they were going to be in a zone defense or a man there, and they came back and threw a man there,” Neal said. “Coach Williams called one play, and Greivis called another. We have to execute better there at the end of the game.”

Added a terse Williams: “Greivis has been a great player for us all year. We’ve won a lot of close games this year. We didn’t get the shot we wanted there. It doesn’t come down to the last play. There’s 39 minutes before that.”

Indeed, those mattered, too. Maryland couldn’t dispatch Virginia when it could, and the Cavaliers eventually extracted a painful price from their neighbors to the north.

With a win, the Terps might have faced a scenario where merely a defeat of N.C. State in the ACC tournament at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome would land them back in the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus. Instead, the chore looms large.

“We might have to make something impossible possible,” Vasquez said. “You never know. It’s just hurtful right now.”

And confusing - just like the disjointed play the Terps ran to clinch another week of teetering on the fringe of postseason chatter.

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