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COLLEGE PARK, Md.--Two programs headed in opposite directions picked up speed as they passed each other last night in Comcast Center.
Virginia, enjoying its best season in a dozen years, moved ever closer to their first NCAA tournament berth in six years with a ragged but rugged 69-65 win over Maryland.
Already off to their best start in Atlantic Coast Conference play in a dozen years, the Cavs can start making plans Saturday if they win at Virginia Tech.
Maryland, meanwhile, is approaching critical condition--not just for the season, but for the health of the entire program. The Terrapins are in danger of missing the NCAA field for the third straight year, and entering the game, they were a mediocre 24-31 in ACC play in the past four seasons.
Even more disturbing is the fact that the Terps start three seniors and a junior, so they're not exactly rebuilding. Coach Gary Williams will lose D.J. Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe and Mike Jones (three of his four double-figures scorers) after the season, and he's already lost several of his best teaching assistants to head-coaching jobs elsewhere.
Williams loves to play an up-tempo style and a frantic pressure defense. But the problems come on the offensive end and on the boards.
The Terps have been sloppy and out of sync for most of their ACC schedule, with more turnovers than assists. That'll happen when you have two freshmen (Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes) handling the ball most of the time--especially against a veteran backcourt like Virginia's.
And, even more shockingly, the Terps entered last night's game having been outrebounded by an average of 5.9 per game in ACC play--despite having two of the league's most athletic big men in Ibekwe and James Gist.
On one telling stretch early in the second half, Virginia outhustled Maryland for three offensive rebounds (two by plodding Laurynas Mikalauskas) and capped a 75-second possession with J.R. Reynolds' driving layup. A disgusted Williams called time-out as rare boos for the home team were heard inside the Comcast Center.
Later, on consecutive possessions, Jones dribbled the ball off his foot
and Strawberry threw away a blind pass--two mistakes by seniors who should
know better. At that point, Williams turned to little-used sophomore Dave Neal in a clear act of desperation.
It paid off in the short term, as Neal sank a 3-pointer instantly. But Virginia's Adrian Joseph countered with a 3 of his own moments later, and the Cavaliers held on.
Virginia deserves as much credit as Maryland gets blame for posting only its second regular-season sweep of the Terps since 1992-93. The Cavaliers are noticeably tougher and more resilient under second-year head coach Dave Leitao.
And they've already beaten the Terps for a key recruit: highly regarded shooting guard Jeff Jones, who orally committed to Maryland before changing his mind and signing with the Cavaliers in November.
Aside from a ragged second half, they kept their poise in a hostile environment. They've now won three straight ACC road games--something they never did in seven seasons under former coach Pete Gillen.
With eight ACC victories (one more than they notched all of last season), the Cavaliers are all alone atop the conference standings--at least for 24 hours. They're also within sniffing distance of their first NCAA tournament berth in six years.
That's an eternity for a BCS conference team. Maryland is in danger of seeing its drought reach half that span, and is sliding toward irrelevance.
As the Cavaliers can tell them, that's a tough hole to escape.Steve DeShazo: 540/374-