Merry Christmas, You Wonderful Old Building and Loan!
"This was probably the lowest-rated Duke team in a while at the start of the year, and they had the mentality of, 'OK, we are going to show everybody,'" said [Maryland Coach Gary] Williams, whose team will need to defend the perimeter better than it did Sunday when the Wolfpack hit 12 of 26 three-point shots. "It really shows in the way they play. I haven't seen a game where they weren't really ready to play."
I read this quote
on Wednesday prior to the Maryland vs. Duke game and began sketching out my column for this Friday: "Stick a Fork in the Terps." This was Gary Williams, architect of a number of Sweet Sixteen and Final Four appearances, and wearer of an NCAA championship ring, all accomplished without significant contribution from any first tier recruits, dejectedly praising his biggest conference coaching rival for doing what had been his own bread and butter: coaching up a bunch of nobodies into something special. The Terps are toast, I thought. The soap opera that is this year's squad had finally broken a proud man, and he was conceding that he had lost his team. I noticed recently that my colleague Ed had persisted in referring to the Terps as a "quality team" or a "test" of another squad's claim to ! its poll rank. Why, I thought. Who had the Terps beaten this year to deserve such praise?
Prior to taking the court at Cameron Indoor on Wednesday night, Maryland's record stood at 11-5. So far, so good. But the winning record didn't tell the story. The vanquished included: Jackson State, Mercer, then #25 Memphis (now 10-9), George Mason, UNC-Asheville, Florida State in OT, American, Liberty, Mount St. Mary's, Temple, and Virginia. That, sports fans, is not exactly an A-list of opponents. On the other hand, in early December Maryland lost to #18 Wisconsin and gave up over 100 points in a regulation loss to unheralded George Washington. Then came the January Tobacco Road blow-outs: by 34 at #3 UNC, by 15 at #5 Wake, and by 16 at home versus NC State, loser of five of its last six games. Maryland seemed ripe for another blowout, this time at Duke and in front of thousands of blue-painted math geeks coordinating their lame cheers by text message.
Oh, and Gary had just admitted to the national press that Coach K was doing the job he could not do this season: motivating his players to win. Toast.
"[T]hey had the mentality of, 'OK, we are going to show everybody.'"
Insert kindling, light flame. Read that again. Gary just called out his whole team. To the national press. He just said Duke "had the mentality" to "show everybody." That must have cut to the bone. Those hated Dookies were beating people because they "had the mentality." They believed in their coach. They believed in each other. They believed in the system. And they wanted to "show everybody." By praising their most despised opponent in this way, Gary highlighted what the Terps were not doing. What was their mentality? Who did they believe in? Why weren't they "show[ing] everybody"? Classic message board material. Flame lit, drink stirred, raise the curtain, war commenced! I could go on mixing metaphors appropriate to how that statement inspired the Terps last night, but let the final score show the result.
From the start, the defense swarmed. Duke uncharacteristically mishandled passes, missed easy shots, and lost the physical battle. The Terps played quick on D, defended shots, and hit the boards. On offense, Maryland attacked the basket, fought for loose balls, showed patience, and seemed to make the shots that counted. Duke did not. Every time I thought, here comes the comeback, whether it was J.J. Redick or Sheldon Williams, the shot that normally falls...that off-balance three pointer, runner in the lane, quick put-back...did not. That blue pitchfork that has stabbed my heart so many times in the past missed its mark. I started to believe Maryland would win.
"It really shows in the way they play. I haven't seen a game where they weren't really ready to play."
Gary's Terps hit the floor with an interesting starting five: John Gilchrist, Chris McCray, Mike Jones, Nik Caner-Medley, and big Will Bowers. Three guards, a forward and center to match up against Duke's three guard, two forward set. (Just a quick aside: Former co-workers and roommates alike know how much disdain I have for Will Bowers. Nothing personal, but the big, stone-handed handed white guy cost us many leads and not a few games when Will Bowers used to go by the name Mike Mardesich
. A word of advice: keep a seat or two buffer zone between you and I when Bowers takes the floor. I also advise cupping the sensitive ears of any children who may stray too close.) Gary shook things up, bringing F Ekene Ibekwe and C Travis Garrison off the bench. The Maryland hoopsters responded and showed they too were "ready to play."
Ibekwe, in particular, played better coming off the bench than he has most of the season as a starter. Only a sophomore, the lanky forward showed a level of intensity that Maryland as a team had been missing over its past several games against Tar Heel state opponents. Ibekwe finished
with 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots. Most importantly he made the important foul shots down the stretch that sealed the win, while at the same time exhibited some of the control he has missed all season by staying out of foul trouble.
Elsewhere, upperclassmen Nik Caner-Medley and John Gilchrist combined to provide the calming leadership and steady play that kept Duke from running away with the game when the Blue Devils started making shots. Caner-Medley drained shot after shot and finished with 25 points, including a perfect 6-6 from the charity stripe. Refreshingly, there is no doubt Gilchrist came ready to play, as his defensive play, 10 points, and team-leading nine rebounds can attest.
Maryland as a team came to win. They performed well on both sides of the ball, holding Duke to 33.3% shooting for the game, and calmly sinking the game winning free throws as the clock drew down.
Final score, Maryland 75, Duke 66
Epilogue. As the final seconds ticked away and I beamed with happiness, I peered outside Laschet's Inn
at the heavy lake effect snows covering the streets of Chicago. What did this scenery and unadulterated joy bring to mind? It's a Wonderful Life
. I wanted desperately to reenact George Bailey's crazed dash through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls at the movie's conclusion.
Hello, Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!
Yes, I felt like shaking hands with everyone I saw, stumbling through the snow, waving my arms and feverishly yelling with a hearty laugh, "Fear the Turtle!" to every breathing or even inanimate object I came across.
Zuzu –– Zuzu. My little gingersnap! How do you feel?
Let's see...beating an undefeated Duke...at Cameron...in front of thousands of dejected Crazies? Pretty darn wonderful.
Final Note: This is my last column from Chicago. This weekend I will be moving back to the Atlantic Coast and the best basketball region in the country. I do not expect the move to affect publication of my column next Friday, so fear not. Let us all hope that this change in venue improves both my access to ACC broadcasts and warmer temperatures. Thank you for your patience.
Michael brings us the Maryland news. Just don't bring the Chicago weather.