- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE | When the most obvious question of Gary Williams’ shortest postgame session of the season finally came Saturday, the smoldering Maryland coach batted it aside.

Clearly, he was in no mood to ponder NCAA tournament possibilities just after a humbling 68-63 loss at Virginia.

“I haven’t even thought about that,” Williams said scowling.

He was, perhaps, the only one.

A small caravan of Maryland fans trekked down Route 29, boisterously buying seats in the upper reaches of Virginia’s student section in the hopes of watching the Terrapins (18-12, 7-9 ACC) inch ever closer to an improbable NCAA tournament berth.

Instead, the invaders from the north saw firsthand the tenuous nature of Maryland’s ever-teetering season.

The Terps could claim two particularly noteworthy accomplishments when boasting about their record to date. One was a pair of victories over North Carolina and Michigan State, towering triumphs sure to look good on anyone’s resume.

But just as importantly, Maryland had done nothing inexplicable. Several teams - Clemson, Duke and North Carolina, among others - had blown out the Terps. Still, nine of the losses came against opponents that rolled up 20 victories. None possessed a losing record.

Until, that is, the stumble against the Cavaliers (10-17, 4-12), a defeat that could prove more damaging than the one-point home loss to Morgan State precisely two months earlier.

With Virginia Tech’s loss at Florida State on Sunday, Maryland earned the No. 7 seed in the ACC tournament and a date with 10th-seeded N.C. State (16-13, 6-10) in Thursday’s opening round. Regardless of opponent, the priority is clear for the Terps.

“Just win. Just get wins,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “We’re capable of still making the tournament if we get ourselves some more wins.”

Doing so means moving past as befuddling a moment as this year’s team has summoned to date.

Rarely could Maryland plead guilty to not playing hard this season. There were times the Terps didn’t play smart, and more than a few occasions they faced a talent deficit they could not erase. Such was the case last week when Maryland clung to Wake Forest for much of the game before falling 65-63.

Yet handed a chance to pummel a downtrodden team after building a 21-8 lead, the Terps turned lackluster and their advantage soon shriveled. They trailed much of the second half to a team that had lost 12 of its previous 14, rallying to tie in the closing stages before growing discombobulated in their final meaningful possession.

It was powerful evidence of a team not quite worthy of the NCAA tournament, even in a year when it seems virtually no one chasing the final few berths is capable of rattling off the two or three wins necessary to accomplish the task.

“If you look at the records between the two teams, you would think we would be coming out here with a lot of fire and intensity and the score would be pretty spread out,” Milbourne said. “I think we might have gotten a little comfortable.”

That should be a problem no longer. A first-round ACC tournament loss will ensure a fourth NIT visit in five years. Even a split would leave Maryland in a precarious state, far too susceptible to the unusual whims of March to feel comfortable.

As a result, a team that has won consecutive games just once in this calendar year must do so again, this time with stakes especially high.

“We’re mature about it,” guard Greivis Vasquez said. “We knew it was our game to win to seal the deal, and now we have to win the ACC tournament. … Two good wins would get us back in. We have to show people we can play night in and night out. We have to prove it again.”

By now, even his silver-haired coach has thought about that.

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