Monday, February 26, 2007

Let's Dance!

First let me apologize for the delay in posting about the North Carolina game. If you're a long time reader you know I don't do this for a living yet I still try to devote as much time to this blog as I can during my free moments. I'm not always able to update the blog as often as I, or some readers, would like, but I do my best. The only thing I would ask from the readers of my blog is to understand those principles and refrain from criticising me for not spending more time writing for their enjoyment. I appreciate everyone who takes time to visit my humble blog and read what I have written. So now that I've gotten that out of the way...

What a victory! Going into the season I felt that the coronation of North Carolina was a bit premature and that the Tarheels would likely lose somewhere in the neighborhood of four games in the ACC. They are a very talented collection of players, if perhaps a bit overpraised, but I had some doubt that they could mesh together to form an exceptional team. If the last few weeks are any indication they have a long way to go before the NCAA tournament if they hope to make a deep run. Having said all that this was by far the best opponent Maryland has faced during the win streak which validates the turnaround in this team's season.

North Carolina got out to a comfortable lead in the first half, ahead by as many as 13 points midway through the period, and seemed to be in control of the tempo of the game. Maryland came out a bit too amped up and settled for some poor shots only going 6-20 to start the game. After about the first ten minutes Maryland settled down and was able to whittle away at Carolina's lead to close to within three points at halftime. In my opinion the game MVP was senior DJ Strawberry who scored 10 points in the last 10 minutes of the first half to help Maryland close the gap and position itself to keep the game close. The rest of the team scored 14 points during that stretch including a nice contribution by Bambale Osby who posted 6 points and 8 rebounds in only eight minutes of play during the first half.

The Tarheels helped Maryland by committing 14 fouls in the first half and allowing Maryland 13 free throw attempts. If Maryland had not missed the front end of a couple one-and-one chances it may have hurt UNC even more. Roy Williams use of reserve forwards Alex Stephenson and Deon Thompson backfired as the pair picked up six fouls between them in the first half alone, only 3 of those fouls came after Hansbrough picked up his second foul of the half at the six minute mark. He also must have been searching for some frontcourt help as Maryland crushed the Tarheels on the offensive glass with 15 in the first half. That enabled Maryland to stay in the game in spite of 39.5% shooting compared to Carolina's 48.6% mark for the half. Dispite some sloppy play that led to turnovers the Terps kept within shouting distance.

In the second half North Carolina was able to build up another double digit lead and by the 10 minute mark they enjoyed a 12 point cushion. Only the fantastic play of DJ Strawberry kept the Carolina lead from growing to the point that a comeback would have been impossible. In those critical first ten minutes of the second half Strawberry scored 12 of Maryland's 20 points and helped get the offense, which had veered off into a dribble and jumpshot routine, back on track for the heroic final 7 minutes. It culminated with an assist by the senior for a 3-pointer by Mike Jones to cut the lead to 77-70 after a missed Bobby Frasor layup and then another 3-pointer by Strawberry on the next possession to make it a four point deficit.

The difference in those final seven minutes was that North Carolina didn't have an seniors able to steady their talented underclassmen and beat back the Maryland rally. Strawberry totally outplayed the closest player Carolina has to an experienced veteran in senior Reyshawn Terry. I was somewhat surprised that Roy Williams didn't use one of the four timeouts to stem the run by Maryland. That tactical error may have cost his team the game. He relied on media timeouts until under a minute left in the game, by which point his team's 12 point lead had evaporated.

Seniors Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe had perhaps their best games of the year, even if they were not the most gaudy in the box score. Ibekwe went 4-4 from the foul line in the closing minutes and Jones blitzed UNC with a succession of 3-pointers and flex curls in the middle of the lane. Roy Williams tried Wayne Ellington and defensive specialist Marcus Ginyard but neither was able to slow down Jones who scored 3 straight field goals as Maryland traded buckets with Carolina for about 4 minutes.

Maryland then proceeded to dig in defensively sparked by a block of Ty Lawson by Eric Hayes with four minutes left and the Terps still trailing. From that point on North Carolina would only score only two field goals in the final four minutes. Bambale Osby did a fantastic job defending Hansbrough and frustrating his physical below-the-rim offensive style for most the the final ten minutes of the game. The defensive rebounding was superb and few jumpshots went uncontested in the last few possessions by Maryland. It was a very impressive and gutty showing by a group that has often had their grit questioned this year.

The entire frountcourt had the best collective game of the season as the trio of Osby, Gist and Ibekwe combined for 32 points and 26 rebounds. Will Bowers also contributed during his 10 minutes of play with defense, blocking two shots. This was the frontcourt that Maryland fans dreamed about during the early part of the season. Gist had an effective, if unspectacular, 12 points and 9 rebounds. Given the quality of the opponent they all had excellent showings.

Perhaps feeling the pressure of such a high profile game the freshmen struggled in the first half, especially Eric Hayes who had 4 turnovers by halftime. Vasquez played a little better but was out of control at times and made some poor decisions with his shot selection. They both played well enough down the stretch with Hayes amassing 5 assists to only 1 turnover in the 2nd half. This was a game for the seniors, however, and none shined brighter than DJ Strawberry, who was awarded his second ACC player of the week honor after this win. His 17 points in the 2nd half turned the tide of the game in favor of Maryland.

With Carolina down by two with 4 seconds left in the game Brandon Wright intentionally missed his second free throw, after missing the first, resulting in a scrum for the ball. Players went sprawling and the most tenacious rebounder in the ACC, perhaps in the nation, seemed like he would be able to grab the rebound and put a shot up before time expired. Instead Greivis Vasquez snatched the ball from Tyler Hansbrough as time expired. It seemed fitting that one of the freshman sealed the win by wrestling the ball away from the celebrated Tarheel and in the process probably secured a NCAA bid for the Terrapins, their first in two seasons. The precocious freshman struck a pose after he grabbed the ball from a prostrate Hansbrough before streaking out to the the middle of the floor with his teammates. The bench had erupted onto the floor in a mixture of fist pumps and shouts of unadulterated and pure joy. The students poured out onto the floor from the stands to join in the euphoric celebration. My brother's stomach settled back down after he squawked "I'm going to be sick" throughout the last few minutes of the game and I sat in stunned disbelief at the improbable continuation of a five game winning streak.

Gary Williams was almost overcome with emotion after the victory and could barely finish his television interview as the celebration continued on the floor all around him. Sometimes Williams can be grouchy and defensive in regards to criticism of his team but there is a high personal price for caring about something as deeply and genuinely as Gary cares about Maryland basketball. The failures wound him deeper than any Maryland fan, while his driven and sometime maniacal nature keeps him from truly appreciating the successes. There is always another opponent, another recruit or another season to keep preparing for which leaves little opportunity to enjoy the moment for a coach like Williams. Hopefully one day when Gary walks away he'll be able to enjoy his achievements but for now it is nights like Sunday night that Williams lives for. When it is he and his team against all the odds and doubters coming up with a gritty and tenacious victory.

The tears welling up in Gary's eyes, the students and players on the floor, the hearts of Terrapin fans everywhere and the snowflakes outside in the cold winter night were all doing the same thing.

They were dancing, and it isn't even March.

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