I had long ago discovered that I would approach Terps' games as intensely, if not even more so, this season than in the past. The early-season gut-wrenching loss to Indiana had removed any doubt there. Therefore, the churning in my stomach most of Friday came as no surprise. I found that I could not sit still while I watched the Texas-Connecticut game, working on cleaning out my basement during time outs to work off some nerves.
Maryland's stumbling start out of the gate was disappointing, but their quick run to get back into the game was not unexpected. Trailing by only five points after shooting like the team was blindfolded was somewhat comforting during halftime.
The Terps' quick run to start the second half was energizing, but I could feel that energy draining from my body as the Spartans reasserted themselves to take and maintain a 13-point lead late in the second half. I had expected Maryland to have trouble scoring in the low-post against Michigan State's lumberjack-like front line, but a 2-16 performance from three-point range was unespected. As the clock wound down and the Spartans' lead stayed in double digits, I slumped in my chair and wondered what in the name of Dickie V and Billy Packer had happened to the Terps tonight.
After sulking for a few minutes, I noticed the Terps finally had some momentum. Steve Blake and John Gilchrist took turns picking the pockets of State's suddenly overwhelmed backcourt. Almost before I knew it, Maryland had run off 15 unanswered points and taken their first lead of the night. They had scraped themselves off the mat and started throwing haymakers while Michigan State hung on for dear life.
Ultimately, it was not quite enough. Spartan freshman Paul Davis scored the final two hoops in the last minute, and Steve Blake's last second game-winning three-pointer bounced off the back rim. Let's face it, two buzzer beating shots within a week in the NCAA tournament was a bit much to ask for.
With that one clang, the Terps were no longer champions. The college careers of seniors Blake, Drew Nicholas, Tahj Holden, Ryan Randle, and Calvin McCall were finished.
Within seconds, my initial question was answered. I recognized that familiar emptiness in the pit of my stomach. The season was indeed over, and it hurt like hell. Good!
I had said at various times during the last year that I was truly going to miss hearing "the defending national champions" phrase used in reference to the Terps. It's been less than 24 hours since the dethroning, and I now know just how right I was.
For long time Maryland fans, this was the final closure of the emotional circle. After experiencing the championship last season, we lacked only the disappointment of then losing the title.
Even though I never for one moment expected the Terps to repeat this season, there was always hope until about 12:15 this morning. As a fan, I am proud of the way Coach Williams and his team defended the title. They continued to be a source of pride for students and alumni alike. This was another successful season, but any campaign that ends without a championship invariably brings at least a brief period of disappointment.
The pain of the loss to Michigan State helps to reinforce just how special the championship season was, and always will be, to Terp fans. I can't think of anything that could diminish that feeling of ecstasy we experienced on April 1, 2002.
There will inevitably be those fans that will dissect this season and pick at everything that went wrong and how it should have been better. It has been an annual tradition after Maryland's season ended without a title. However, I think there will less of that in this off-season.
An enduring gift from the chamipinship team is a renewed sense of hope. There is next season to look forward to. This year's newcomers will have a year of valuable experience, and they will be joined by what is perhaps Gary Williams' greatest recruiting class ever. He will have an exceptionally young and talented team that will likely frustrate him and the fans at times, but should also bring a new batch of highlights to file away in our memory scrapbooks.
Let me know what you think on the message board or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.