COLLEGE PARK, MD There is an oft-used quote amongst basketball commentators that sometimes a close game will come down to “whoever has the ball last.” Of course, the quote would be much more appropriate if those commentators would say that games came down to “whoever has the ball last figuring out a way to make a shot.”
When Cliff Tucker drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer to push Maryland past Georgia Tech 76-74 at Comcast Center, he ensured that no matter how the rest of his career plays out, no Terrapins fan will ever forget him.
Keeping everything in context here, the Terps improved to 19-7 overall, 9-3 in the ACC. They did not lock up a Top 4 seed for the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, they did not lock up a trip to the NCAA Tournament, and they did not lock up a spot in the AP Top 25 next week. But with Clemson, Virginia Tech and Duke still on the schedule, Tucker’s shot made a run to 10 conference victories MUCH more likely, the mark that most analysts believe will make sure Maryland hears their name called on Selection Sunday.
Should Maryland not get to 10 wins or the NCAA Tournament, the memory of Saturday’s game will likely linger in a fashion even more remarkable.
The improbability of the events in the final minutes of the Terrapins’ win over the Yellow Jackets is hard to measure. The Terps and Jackets had 4 lead changes in the final 60 seconds, with D’Andre Bell, Greivis Vasquez and Derrick Favors all having the chance to play the role of hero following big buckets, and Dino Gregory nearly playing the role of goat after a point blank miss when just 44 seconds remained on the clock.
For as surreal as the last minute was, the final 5 seconds were borderline insane. Derrick Favors put Georgia Tech ahead 74-73 on a putback hoop with just 2 seconds to play. Maryland inbounded, and Greivis Vasquez took the ball to midcourt before heaving a desperation shot that remarkably went in. However, Maryland assistant Keith Booth had called for the team’s final timeout before the shot, setting up one of the wildest scenes in the short history of Comcast Center.
After officials reviewed a replay, they adjusted the game clock from .9 seconds remaining to 1.5 seconds remaining. Additionally, the Terps were also given the ball about 10 feet behind where they thought they were going to receive it. Maryland called a play involving Greivis Vasquez and Dino Gregory setting a pick for Cliff Tucker, but the pass was supposed to be a lob inside. Upon seeing where they would get the ball, Tucker informed Eric Hayes (who was throwing the ball inbounds) that he would instead go to the 3 point line.
Of course, the rest is now part of Maryland history.
To call Tucker an “unlikely hero” wouldn’t quite serve the purpose of what I am trying to convey. As Tucker said himself following the game, he’s usually in a “blackshirt” defending the starters when the Terps would practice that play. Tucker said the play is almost always drawn up for Greivis Vasquez or Sean Mosley. Gary Williams even admitted postgame that he had “never” seen Cliff Tucker hit the shot in practice, no matter how confident he was in his team to execute the play.
The most likely reason Tucker was even on the floor is because Gary Williams was weary of using Sean Mosley given his late struggles, and his sometimes shaky performance at the free throw line (dominating interior player Jordan Williams was on the bench almost certainly due to his poor free throw shooting as well). Mosley had previously thrown away an inbounds pass with Maryland having fell behind by 5 points, and Gary Williams had given him the hook.
Would Mosley have been able to convert the shot? Maybe. But he missed a game winner at Wake Forest earlier in the season, and his confidence has appeared shaky at best in recent weeks.
Cliff Tucker is now 1 for 1 in game winning situations.
Tucker’s shot will almost certainly be compared to other famous buzzer-beaters in Maryland history. Drew Nicholas’ running three in Nashville to top UNC-Wilmington in the first round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament is the most well-known shot. Even Gary Williams admitted after Saturday’s game that Nicholas was more of a “hired gun”, who had an “80% chance” of hitting a winner should he be able to get it off. Gary also noted that Nicholas was able to use the momentum of bringing the ball up court before taking the shot to hit it.
Tucker didn’t have the same momentum. He was forced to catch, pump fake, and shoot. Also, while Nicholas was nearly a 40% 3-point shooter for his career, Tucker entered the day just a 34% shooter from beyond the arc. Tucker HAD hit a big three earlier in the day to cut a 5 point Tech lead down to 2 (a shot Tucker told me afterwards had completely changed his confidence level), but he had also scored just 5 points on the game-near his average of 5.8 entering the day.
On top of that, Nicholas had just hit a buzzer beater from a similar spot to beat NC State in Raleigh a few weeks prior to that. The role of “hero” was nothing new to him.
Laron Profit drilled a game winner in January of 1997 to lift Maryland to a 54-51 win over Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. However, that shot came in a tie game-where a miss would have given the Terps a chance to win in overtime. Tucker didn’t have that same luxury Saturday. Profit was also a statistically better three point shooter both at the time and throughout his career than Tucker.
On top of that, Profit had a wide open look. Tucker had Glen Rice Jr. defending him. And if Profit had taken that shot today, it would have been waived off when replay showed the shot came out of his hands just as the clock expired.
The most recent buzzer-beater in Maryland history came just a season ago, when Greivis Vasquez made Mike Lonergan forever regret not calling for a foul in the final seconds before knocking down a three from the corner. Of course, that three didn’t win the game for Maryland-it only sent it into overtime, where a completely deflated Catamounts team had nothing to offer.
Other unlikely players have done remarkable things in Maryland history-including Mike Grinnon knocking down 2 free throws in overtime to help beat Duke in the 2004 ACC Championship Game, but the game wasn’t on the line at the time. Mike Mardesich and LaRon Cephas contributed in overtime to a defeat of #1 North Carolina at Cole Field House in 1998.
But this was the most unlikely of the bunch.
Gary Williams said he hopes Cliff Tucker will take “confidence” from the shot moving forward. They’ll need it, starting Wednesday night when Clemson comes to town.
But no matter what happens this season, the events that unfolded Saturday will not soon be forgotten by Cliff Tucker, Maryland fans, or anyone who was watching a new hero take his place in history.