The final chapter in the story of the Maryland Terrapins’ 2003-04 basketball season was written in Denver tonight. It was a fascinating yarn that, like any good tale, featured drama, suspense, and strange plot twists. It also had an exciting finish, but did not contain a happy ending for the Terps. Another Maryland (20-12) comeback fell agonizingly short, and they fell to the defending national champion Syracuse Orangemen (23-7) 72-70 in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
In the short term, Terrapin coaches, players, and fans will doubtlessly be haunted by “what ifs”.
The obvious foul committed on Chris McCray had been called instead of a traveling violation on McCray with Maryland trailing 69-64.
Travis Garrison had been able to hold onto the rebound of D. J. Strawberry’s first missed shot on the game’s final possession. He had an opening for an easy layup and/or being fouled.
Syracuse had not finished the first half on an 11-2 run.
Maryland had attacked the Orangemen’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense in the first half the way they did in the second half.
Would’ve, should’ve, could’ve. For the second year in a row, the Terps’ season ends with a missed shot following a spirited comeback. Like Maryland’s first round escape against UTEP was reminiscent of their 2001 first-round win over George Mason, so was tonight’s game, particularly the final few minutes, similar to the Terps’ Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State last year.
With only a few minutes remaining in both games, Maryland faced double-digit deficits and looked dead in the water. Like last season’s veteran team, this group of Terrapin youngsters dug deep and clawed their way back into a game they probably had no business winning, only to see their hopes bounce off the rim in the final second.
Last year, Steve Blake’s three-pointer fell just short and ended his Maryland career. This year, D. J. Strawberry had the courage to take the shot that the Terps needed to extend the season, and the hustle and athleticism to follow it and nearly force overtime with his desperation putback.
If you want to find one specific turning reason for Maryland’s loss, their 9:23 stretch in the first half without a hoop would be a good place to start. One could also make a strong case for the Terps’ 11 turnovers and 27% shooting before halftime being decisive.
Conversely, there was one clear factor that led to Maryland’s comeback in the second half—they attacked. The Terps regressed offensively in the first half, often resembling the squad that put the team on the NCAA bubble with their play from mid-January thru mid-February.
Maryland was apparently mystified by the Syracuse zone and settled for jumpers or shots forced up in traffic. McCray, who had regained confidence in his shot during the Terps’ recent run, was again hesitant to put up a shot. John Gilchrist, the main catalyst of Maryland’s surge, was unable to penetrate and spent most of the first half dribbling around the perimeter. Smith was again stymied by a big man who was bigger than him and who could hold his ground in the low post.
That recipe cooked up several losses for the Terps this year and helped Maryland dig a ten-point hole at halftime, 32-22. The Orangemen’s star forward Hakim Warick led all scorers with 13 points at the break. Syracuse center Craig Forth, averaging 5.7 points per game for the season, scored eight in the first half, all on layups.
The Orange eventually stretched their lead to 16 points. After playing so sluggishly before the break, Syracuse scored on six of their first seven possessions after halftime and made seven of their first ten shots. Warrick scored ten of the Orangemen’s first 22 points to lead the charge and put Syracuse firmly in control of the game.
One important thing had changed in the Terps’ favor, however. Maryland was finally penetrating the Orangemen’s zone and beginning a steady procession to the foul line. The Terps would wind up shooting an amazing 31 free throws in the second half compared to only seven in the first.
As we have seen time and time again during this season, no Maryland lead is secure and no deficit is insurmountable. The Terps’ inside pair of Smith and Garrison gradually took over the game and gave Maryland a chance to win. Maryland also hung onto the ball, committing only six turnovers in the second half while forcing eight.
The Terps outscored Syracuse 10-3 in the final 2:05 of the game. Foul trouble would decimate the Terps’ lineup, however, and severely limit their offensive options down the stretch. McCray, Gilchrist, and Ibekwe all fouled out, leaving Mike Jones and Strawberry to make plays on the final two possessions. Jones was fouled on a three-point attempt and made two of the three free throws. Strawberry was unable to find a shooter on the last play of the game and forced up two shots on his own.
Ultimately, the Terps’ poise and determination over the final 15 minutes of the game was not enough to overcome a dismal performance during the first 25 minutes. It did give everyone involved with the game from a Maryland perspective a lot to be proud of. This team NEVER, NEVER quit tonight or during the season, even when many of the fans were ready to quit on them. Coach Gary Williams never stopped believing in his players, which finally led to them believing in themselves and brought their fans back to believing in the team.
This loss will hurt for a while, and it should. When enough time passes, though, it will not diminish what this Maryland basketball team accomplished during what turned into a memorable 2003-04 season. I’ll have more on that next week.
This season is over for the Maryland Terrapins, but Midnight Madness is only 206 days away. I can hardly wait.
Notes From Under the Shell
This was the first time Syracuse had ever defeated Maryland after losing their five previous meetings. The Terps had defeated the Orangemen in the 1972 NIT and the 1973 NCAA Eastern Regional. This was the first time the teams had played since 1980.
Maryland advanced to the NCAA Tournament second round for the seventh straight year.
The Terps’ win over UTEP game the school its eighth consecutive season with at least 20 wins.
This was only the third time that the two pervious national champions have played in the NCAA Tournament. The other occasions were 1960 champ Ohio State facing 1961 champ Cincinnati in the 1962 championship game, and 1993 winner North Carolina facing 1994 title holder Arkansas in the 1995 Final Four.
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