COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Minutes after Maryland’s regular season concluded with a third straight loss, Gary Williams offered a remark that could summarize his team’s entire season.
“Close doesn’t count, especially this time of year. You have to figure out a way to win those games.”
It’s a mantra that rings true for a team that’s failed to close out victories against top opponents and to complete comeback efforts on several occasions.
It’s the reality the Terps now face, needing to win four straight in the conference tournament as their only means to make the NCAA tournament.
Continuing their late-season collapse, the Terps fell to Virginia, 74-60, in a game controlled by the Cavaliers all afternoon on Maryland’s Senior Day. The loss leaves Maryland (18-13, 7-9 ACC) with a three-game losing streak to finish the regular season for the first time since 2005 and Williams to search for answers before the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. next weekend.
The Cavaliers (16-14, 7-9 ACC) slowed the tempo to their liking, turning it over just six times as Maryland’s full-court pressure failed to produce any points off turnovers. Virginia received career-high performances by junior center Assane Sene (15 points) and junior guard Sammy Zeglinski, who torched the Terps for 25 points on six 3-pointers. The pair combined for eight points in the teams’ first meeting, a 66-42 Maryland victory in Charlottesville on Jan. 27.
Virginia’s 8-for-17 performance from beyond the arc continued a disturbing trend for the Maryland perimeter defense that allowed wide-open looks to Zeglinski all afternoon.
“They did a better job of running their offense as opposed to us,” Williams said. “There’s no excuses in a situation like that.”
Even so, the Terps found themselves in a familiar position to what they faced at Miami on Wednesday, using an 8-0 run to cut the deficit to 63-58 with 5:12 remaining. However, Maryland could get no closer, scoring just two points the rest of the way as Virginia finished the afternoon with a 9-0 run to beat the Terps at Comcast Center for the first time since 2007.
Maryland shot just 37.5 percent in the second half, scoring 27 points in its attempt to erase a 37-33 halftime deficit. Williams pointed to missed shots in the paint when the gap was narrowed, allowing Tony Bennett’s squad to regain control down the stretch.
“It was close and then they pulled away, and then we had to fight back,” said Jordan Williams, who led the team with 17 points and six rebounds. “It was an uphill battle all night. We kind of just let them play with us early. We should have just taken them out of the game at the beginning, but we didn’t do that.”
The Maryland coach’s frustration level bubbled over in the second half when he drew his first technical foul in over two years. At one point, Williams sent the unconventional lineup of Dino Gregory, Pe’Shon Howard, Mychal Parker, Hawk Palsoon, and Berend Weijs to the floor in the second half, looking for the spark his regular rotation was not providing.
The Terps did get closer, but not close enough, as Gary Williams put it so bluntly.
After meek losses to Miami and Virginia, he’s looking for answers in every nook and cranny. And finding none.
“Monday’s practice will be interesting in terms of trying to find the right guys to go down there and represent us in the ACC tournament,” Williams said.
It’s the type of comment you expect to hear at the start of the season — not in March.
Maryland will now attempt to become the first team to win four straight in the ACC tournament since it was expanded to the current format in 2005. The Terps will play as the seventh seed in Greensboro should Miami fall at Georgia Tech on Sunday; Maryland falls to eighth if the Hurricanes defeat the Yellow Jackets.
In a down year for the ACC, it shows just how far the Terps have fallen from a year ago when they shared the regular season title with Duke and were led by ACC Player of the Year Greivis Vasquez. Unlike the Baltimore native Gregory, who’s been one of the few pleasant surprises in an otherwise disappointing year, the senior backcourt of Adrian Bowie and Cliff Tucker failed to elevate their respective games nearly enough to put the Terps in a position to make it back to the Big Dance.
Senior Day was a painful conclusion, as the two combined for just 10 points while Gregory had 15 to continue his strong play down the stretch.
Unfortunately, it’s a senior class that will go down as one of the most disappointing of the Gary Williams era, with only Gregory raising his play substantially during his time in College Park. When you consider forwards Braxton Dupree (transferred to Towson) and Shane Walker (Loyola) had already left the program, the recruiting class of 2007 appears even more critical to the team’s downfall in 2011.
Gary Williams and the Terps will try to make the best of their trip to the Greensboro Coliseum, stating they expect to make noise in Greensboro and knowing their only option is to win four in a row.
But their recent play resembles a group that will struggle to survive Thursday’s first-round match-up, much less make it to Championship Sunday.
“We’re struggling right now, but next week I think it’s going to be a whole different team,” freshman Pe’Shon Howard said. “I think we’re going to do well in the ACC tournament.”
Valiant words, but it’s been the same result all season.
Close, but no cigar.
Why would it change now?