Wednesday, February 08, 2006
It was an emotional night for Gary Williams. He went from being afraid his team was going to get "blown out by 30" to basking in the glory of a postgame celebration to mark his place as the winningest coach in Maryland basketball history. He got choked up a few times while being interviewed by Bobby Cremins (on a side note, how can you not like Cremins? His "Gary won't panic!, Gary won't panic!" call was fantastic. He may as well been on the Maryland broadcast with Johnny Holiday) as the magnitude of his achievement dawned on him. This, like his reaction to the Georgia Tech win a few weeks ago, makes Williams' passion for his team and the Maryland program obvious. Captain Nik Caner-Medley presented Williams with a game ball and apologized along with his teammates for not getting him the win sooner. A few of the players seemed to realize that they were part of something special last night and a game they would remember for the rest of their lives.
It seems odd that in such a turbulent season that Gary Williams would achieve one of his most precious records, winning more games at Maryland than any coach in the program's history. Then again things have never come easy for Williams. He gave up a fairly cushy position at Ohio State to come back and take over Maryland's basketball program that had been run into the ground through corruption and mismanagement. The administration viewed the program as an embarrassment, something that needed to be minimized so as to not further tarnish the school's already tattered reputation. Williams went from a place where anything goes if you can win to a place where the administrators just wished the basketball team would go away.
Then the NCAA came along and punished Williams and Maryland for the past sins of others who came before him. The coach wondered to his assistants if he had ruined his career by coming back to his alma mater. His dream job had become a nightmare. Then Gary did what he always does: he ignored the naysayers chatter, redoubled his efforts and convinced his players that it was them against the world. No coach does better with adversity than Gary Williams. It's his milieu. After hearing thousands of people tell you what you can't do or what can't be done proving them wrong becomes as great a motivator as success. For coaching royalty like Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams things are different, they never have to bear the constant harassment or ingratitude of their own fans. They both have a phony and ingratiating personality that people like and so their sins get forgiven or overlooked entirely. Gary Williams doesn't really care about the adulation of a bunch of strangers so he doesn't spend energy trying to curry favor with the fans. For Williams if you're a Maryland fan you should cheer because you love the school, not because there is a cult of personality around its coach. For a man who coaches out of love for the sport and his university he understands the central tenant of big time athletics these days: it's all about business. People indulge winners and won't stand losers, your character or personality doesn't buy you a free pass from most fans.
When the negativity in the press or on the fan message boards reaches a peak it makes the fire inside Williams burn even hotter. Perhaps it is fitting that in a time that Williams has admitted was one of the most trying of his career he also has one of his grand accomplishments. It must make it bittersweet in some ways for Williams but that has been a constant in his Maryland career. Nothing comes easy for him, or without a personal price, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
It certainly didn't seem like the game would have a happy ending with how Maryland came out in the first half against Virginia. It was a start that was reminiscent of more than a few game last season when the opponent came out focused and stunned Maryland with a quick blitz of points. Down by 14 points just 5 minutes into the game Maryland looked well on its way to a fourth straight loss with its postseason hopes sinking into the abyss. Maryland steadied itself and Virginia got a little sloppy towards the end of the half and left the door open for the Terps to take the lead in the 2nd half. The Terrapins had been outrebounded 26-14, shot a putrid 31% and gave up 38 points in the half but were still in the game because they only turned the ball over 4 times in 20 minutes. It was a lesson that even if you can't shoot worth a lick if you play good defense and don't turn the ball over you still have a chance to win.
The game really didn't start to turn until just over 10 minutes left in the game with Virginia still clinging to their 8 point halftime lead. Maryland scored on four of its next six possessions to tie the game at 51. At that point you could sense that Virginia was wavering and DJ Strawberry delivered the punches to stagger them with 5 points in less than two minutes. Then Mike Jones, who botched a breakaway basket trying for a fancy reverse dunk, delivered the knockout with a clutch 3-pointer from the corner with 2:30 left in the game.
There were a number of players who came up big in the victory. DJ Strawberry is still forcing some bad shots but last night he ended up hitting a few of them for a career high 19 points. I have come to terms with the fact that we'll have to live with Strawberry having a nice game like tonight, when he looks All-ACC caliber, then a game where his out of control decision making costs Maryland a chance to win. You may be saying that puts too much responsibility on Strawberry's shoulders but that is how thin the margin is for this club. They can't afford him to have off nights when he is shooting 13 shots a game. He has improved his outside shooting, which wasn't a huge hurdle since his shooting was utterly atrocious last year, and has the best ability to create his own shot on the team but he needs to learn what is a good shot and what isn't.
Call off the bloodhounds, we've found Ekene Ibekwe's game. At the end of the game he was unstoppable and grabbed every rebound within a 10 foot radius. He had a double-double in the 2nd half alone. The interior players of Maryland had to exploit their athletic advantage on the blocks and Ibekwe certainly did that in the last 10 minutes. His bugaboo has been an inability to build on these kinds of performances but we can only hope this time is different. He'll need this kind of effort against Duke.
James Gist really struggled in the 1st half and took some bad shots in an effort to establish an inside game. He calmed down in the 2nd half and proved he is the best passer of the low post players by gathering three assists in the final 15 minutes. Even though he struggled with his shooting and rebounding he was able to help the team with a 4:1 assist to turnover ratio. For a big man that is impressive.
Perhaps the stealth MVP of the game is Parrish Brown. After only playing 3 minutes in the previous two games Brown came off the bench and provided a spark for Maryland. From 11:37 left in the 2nd half to the 3:34 mark Brown contributed eight solid minutes which saw Maryland erase an eight point deficit and go up by two. He only produced two points and two assists on the stat sheet but played solid defense on Virginia's guards and steadied the half court offense. Sterling Ledbetter had another horrible night and only played 3 minutes in the 2nd half, none after Brown went into the game. His defense is atrocious and he really isn't a starter quality player in the ACC, but Gary doesn't have much to work with these days. We might see Brown more against Duke if the matchups are good.
With this group you can never count on a victory being a start of something since they are so maddeningly inconsistent. I'm not sure struggling so badly in the 1st half against Virginia bodes well for the rest of the season, but the effort and poise this group showed in the 2nd half does justify some hope. If they had played that well in the second half of the prior two games they would have probably won both and been in the thick of the hunt for 2nd place in the ACC. With the razor thin margin this group will play with going forward every game will be tight and well contested. Get your antacid from the medicine cabinet, it's going to be a wild ride.
Offensive Rating: 106.4
Defensive Rating: 93.4