The final game of the season for Maryland wasn't pretty but it shouldn't sour the legacy of this Terrapin squad. They went some of the way in reestablishing the Maryland basketball program as a perennial NCAA tournament selection. I know many fans may be disappointed that they did not take advantage of a great opportunity to knock off a vastly overrated Butler team and advance to the Sweet 16 but it shouldn't prevent them from reflecting on the achievements of this group.
It was an ugly half court style of game with a pace that would make only a glacier jealous. Afterwards the Butler players claimed they didn't try and slow the game down and were just taking what Maryland gave them. Either they are fairly stupid at Butler or they just wouldn't admit that they couldn't beat Maryland by playing any other way. Still, Maryland played poorly enough to let Butler play the kind of game they wanted and they were able to convert that into a nip and tuck victory. Besides dominating Butler with an amazing +15 rebound margin Maryland didn't do anything else well that had propelled them to a seven game winning streak that salvaged their season. Sloppy turnovers, uninspired defense, impotent offensive possessions and lack of on the court leadership doomed the Terps.
Overall Maryland played poorly in its last three games. There was the abysmal performance against Miami and then a near defeat at the hands of Davidson in the first round, followed up by a flawed performance against Butler. In not one of those three games did Maryland show the level of play they had when they ripped off seven straight wins at the end of the regular season. Maybe the team got complacent when it appeared they made the NCAA tournament or maybe they just went into one of the swoons they have been known for the last few seasons. This senior class hasn't been known for its toughness outside of DJ Strawberry and this loss was emblematic of the struggles of this group since coming to College Park in 2003. It was noted that they are the first Maryland class to fail to reach a Sweet 16 since 1993 but that hardly tells the whole story. The 2002 class only escaped that dubious distinction because they played on a team with Drew Nicholas and Steve Blake. Moreover the 2002 class didn't possess the character, on or off the court, that this group of seniors has shown.
The loss to Butler served as a reminder of why this group struggled to uphold Maryland's legacy of excellence in college basketball. In the final game of their careers Mike Jones still couldn't play adequate defense, Ekene Ibekwe lacked the required effort to be an effective force on the inside and DJ Strawberry struggled to provide the scoring that Maryland needed to pull the game out. Strawberry was suffering from the flu to be fair and I think it obviously had some effect on his poor play. For the game Strawberry shot 3-10 for 8 points along with 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 turnovers in 37 minutes of play. One of those turnovers was a controversial charge call in the waining moments of the game, so without further delay let's examine that call.
With 41 seconds on left in the game Maryland got the ball inside to James Gist who then passed to a cutting Strawberry on his way down the lane. It was the same play that Maryland had run in a previous possession that got DJ Strawberry to the foul line. On this play Butler forward Brandon Crone (shouldn't he be in the cast of The O.C. with a name like that?) slid underneath Strawberry and the resulting collision was called a foul. Not only was Crone moving, not only did he slid under Strawberry while he was already in the air but he was UNDER THE BASKET! Any one of those three factors would require either a blocking foul or at least a non-call from the official. It was more than a blown call as it turned out to be decisive to the outcome of the game. Instead of Strawberry going to the free throw line or James Gist dunking home the rebound, as he looked likely to do, Butler got the ball back. It was a terrible end to a very poorly officiated game. Maryland played badly enough to deserve losing but the players should decide the outcome and not incompetent officials.
I'm sure Strawberry was terribly disappointed with how his career at Maryland ended but he didn't get all that much help from the rest of the backcourt. Mike Jones had a hot shooting night and scored a game high 21 points on 8-13 shooting. He was at his best shooting over the smaller defenders for Butler and buried five 3-point baskets. It was also typical of Jones that he never got to the foul line in spite of his 13 field goal attempts. Putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim was never a significant part of Jones' game and it made him a one dimensional offensive threat that was easier to nullify for opposing teams. His defense was spotty as always and he added three turnovers including the bobbled pass with less than a second left in the game that ended Maryland's chances. Somehow it seems fitting that Jones never was able to get off what would have been the last shot of his career.
Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, who had played above their experience for most of the season, reverted to confused freshmen in their second NCAA tournament game. Together they had averaged 14.6 points per game for Maryland during the season but only managed six against Butler. Perhaps they were due for a bad game having played so well during the winning streak but the Terps need them to play better than they did against Butler. Hayes continues to be unwilling to look for any offensive opportunities for himself, which will be a big problem if it continues next season, and the fact that he doesn't score helps the opposing defense. Neither Vasquez nor Hayes turned the ball over much in this game but that is somewhat deceptive as both made poor decisions in the half court offense. The future is bright for these two and hopefully they will remember this disappointment and use it as motivation in preparation for next season.
Ekene Ibekwe went out with a whimper instead of a bang for his last game as a Terrapin. He only scored 8 points and grabbed 9 rebounds against a frontcourt that didn't have an ounce of his athletic ability. His free throw shooting deficiency came back to haunt him as he missed all four attempts from the line. He also got stripped of the ball while attempting to make moves in the low post, racking up four turnovers. His play off the high screens that Butler ran was terrible as usual and partially accounted for the forwards hitting six 3-pointers against Maryland. In four years he never learned how to properly hedge on high screens against perimeter shooters. It was a dreadful game for Ibekwe and he admitted as much afterwards.
James Gist looked like he was ready to retake his scoring role on the team in the first half with 9 points and 5 rebounds but then disappeared in the 2nd half, as he has done too often this season. After the break he went 1-4 with 4 points and 3 rebounds. As with Jones one of his major weaknesses is an inability to get to the foul line when he isn't scoring from the floor, though to his credit at least he made all three of his chances. He did block four shots and showed glimpses of the dominating player he still might become in his final season.
Bambale Osby didn't have any bench magic this game as he only produced 3 points and 2 rebounds in 13 minutes. His lack of production off the bench meant the Terrapins couldn't account for the poor play of Ibekwe in the post. He also had several ill advised passes that got stolen. Senior Will Bowers came off the bench and didn't record any statistic in four minutes of play. Not a point, rebound, field goal attempt or even a foul. Perhaps Gary Williams should have tried out Parrish Brown a little more to see if he could provide a spark but the senior only played 2 minutes total. Overall the bench failed to produce anything of note and was outscored by Butler's bench 15-3.
I don't have a problem with Gary Williams decision to not foul with 41 second left. Butler is a pretty good free throw shooting team and AJ Graves only hits about 96% of his free throws so fouling and hoping for misses wasn't a high percentage play. Maryland was dominating the rebounding advantage and you could hope for a possible steal or turnover. The strategy was sound and Butler did miss its shot but Greivis Vasquez failed to box out Mike Green on the rebound and that was the game. As it happened Maryland still had a chance with 3.6 seconds left to try a tying 3-point shot but couldn't get it off before time expired. Dave Neal had a great rebound and feed to Strawberry but the ball was slapped away by Crone before Strawberry could get the ball up the court.
Butler had 20 points off 17 Maryland turnovers and limited Maryland to 3 fast break points. Maryland did everything in its power to give the game away to Butler yet despite playing so poorly still had a chance to win in the final minutes. The Terps should have beaten Butler, who will advance to only the second Sweet 16 in school history and have no chance to beat number one seed Florida in the next game. It is more a shame that Maryland squandered an opportunity to advance past an inferior team and at least play for the chance to get to an Elite Eight.
I'll have a reflection on this season and what Maryland has to look forward to in the coming days but I hope to also give some thoughts on the rest of the NCAA tournament happenings. For Maryland fans there is always next season.