A night to for­get

These Ter­rap­ins could take a les­son from their Fi­nal Four pre­de­ces­sors

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - DAN STEIN­BERG dan.stein­berg@wash­post.com

They still dripped with swag­ger, the 2002 Terps, to­gether for the first time since they vis­ited the White House as na­tional cham­pi­ons. Lonny Bax­ter chest-bumped Gary Wil­liams, who again thrust his fist to­ward the Xfin­ity Cen­ter crowd. By­ron Mou­ton jabbed some of that team’s hard­ware into the air. The last player in­tro­duced was Juan Dixon, who this week was still tex­ting team­mates about what they ac­com­plished 15 years ago.

“Bro, we played hard as a [un­print­able],” Dixon wrote to Bax­ter on Mon­day night. “No won­der we’re cham­pi­ons.”

“We were all hun­gry,” Bax­ter re­sponded.

They weren’t re­fer­ring to this year’s team in those texts, not

even obliquely. But you couldn’t for­get their words, not af­ter the cur­rent Terps were bul­lied through­out a sec­ond straight hum­bling home loss, this one by 14 points to mid­dling Iowa. These life­less Terps were strong-armed in the paint, giv­ing up an ob­scene 30 sec­ond-chance points. They seemed less and less en­gaged as the game me­an­dered on. Their star was as ab­sent as their de­fense, and they were show­ered with boos af­ter an un­chal­lenged Hawkeyes put­back and again as time ran out.

The 83-69 loss gave Mary­land its first three-game los­ing streak in nearly five years. And this worst game of the sea­son came in front of the best team in school his­tory, the one whose trade­mark snarl doesn’t seem to have faded with age. The for­mer stars had hap­pily dished out ad­vice hours ear­lier dur­ing a 15th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion that brought Dixon and Steve Blake, Bax­ter and Chris Wil­cox back to Col­lege Park. And that ad­vice didn’t seem any less valid by the time fans be­gan los­ing their pa­tience.

“I think they’ve just got to grind,” Wil­cox said dur­ing a lengthy mono­logue about this year’s young Mary­land team. “Some­times when I look at [their] game, some­times I see the hunger. I see it. But down the stretch, I just feel that I want to see more.”

“We were just a gritty team that was really hun­gry,” Bax­ter added. “I wish we could pass our hunger on.”

Hunger and grit seem less im­por­tant than size and tal­ent, and yet some­thing has soured with this Mary­land group that en­tered Fe­bru­ary with such prom­ise. They were 20-2 then, the best start in school his­tory, with three fresh­men starters and a vet­eran star who all seemed im­mune to self-doubt. Since then? The Terps have lost five of seven. They have wilted late, fail­ing to outscore their op­po­nent in the sec­ond half of any of those games. Over their past three sec­ond halves, they have been outscored by 39. And the worst of it has come in Col­lege Park. The two Fi­nal Four teams lost a com­bined three times at home. These Terps lost three home games in Fe­bru­ary.

Parad­ing those Mary­land icons through Col­lege Park will never be easy for the teenagers charged with liv­ing up to their ex­am­ple; the cur­rent fresh­men were barely out of di­a­pers in 2002. And as much as they talk about their hunger and grit, the Fi­nal Four teams also were talented; the rea­son this 15th an­niver­sary out­shined the 10-year cel­e­bra­tion was be­cause five years ago, Blake and Wil­cox were still in the mid­dle of long NBA ca­reers.

Still, the con­trast on this night was par­tic­u­larly strik­ing. First there was Wil­liams, try­ing to ex­plain why his first Fi­nal Four team be­gan bub­bling over with be­lief right around this time of year.

“It’s a fine line [be­tween] con­fi­dence and no con­fi­dence,” he said Saturday af­ter­noon. “And the tim­ing’s very im­por­tant, when you hit that con­fi­dence level. When we got to the NCAA tour­na­ment, we thought we were really good. Whether we were or not, we thought we were really good.”

Five hours later, his suc­ces­sor stood in front of a mi­cro­phone, with a team that seems con­vinced of the op­po­site.

“We need a lit­tle bit more pos­i­tive en­ergy in our team mov­ing for­ward, a lit­tle bit more con­fi­dence,” Mark Tur­geon said. “We tried really hard go­ing into this game to make sure we have con­fi­dence. It’s what tran­spires dur­ing the game — are you tough enough to fight through it? And the last cou­ple games, we just haven’t been. That’s what made us 22-4 was our tough­ness: our men­tal tough­ness, our phys­i­cal tough­ness … We’ve just been so tough. And for some rea­son the last few games, we haven’t been.”

The eas­i­est ex­pla­na­tion is that Mary­land over­achieved through three months and is now float­ing back to­ward re­al­ity. The three fresh­men starters have made just 36 per­cent of their shots dur­ing this skid. The front line is taxed, with Michal Cekovsky’s busted an­kle cost­ing Tur­geon a big body. Melo Trim­ble seems con­vinced that the so­lu­tion is for him to shoot more from be­yond the arc, but he made 2 of 15 three-point at­tempts in the past two losses. Bet­ter find a dif­fer­ent so­lu­tion.

Who knows whether the over­achiev­ing Terps read too many kind head­lines, but their pre­de­ces­sors sought out the re­verse. They are paunchier now and don’t have as much hair. They have wives and kids. And they’re still bristling at the world.

“All of us were pretty much un­der­dogs our whole life,” Bax­ter said. “We never really got a lot of credit for the things that we did. We were never la­beled as big-time play­ers or su­per­stars. So we just wanted to show ev­ery­body that we were se­ri­ous. We wanted to show ev­ery­body how good we were.”

So if Tur­geon’s cur­rent group needs a con­fi­dence boost, maybe they can main­line some from the past. His team still could reach 25 wins for a third straight year, some­thing pre­vi­ously ac­com­plished only by the gray­ing men hon­ored at half­time. The Terps still have a shot at equal­ing the school’s three-year record for wins. And the big pic­ture is still fine, with more tal­ent ar­riv­ing next year.

But on that mat­ter, too, re­mem­ber the past. Ter­ence Mor­ris was in the build­ing Saturday, a mem­ber of the 2001 Fi­nal Four team who was gone be­fore the na­tional cham­pi­onship. He still thinks his sopho­more year team, the one with Steve Fran­cis, was the most talented he played on. That won’t earn you a stand­ing ova­tion 15 years later.

“It doesn’t mat­ter how talented you are,” Mor­ris said. “It’s within the play­ers.”

Which is why Tur­geon spent Saturday night talk­ing about pos­i­tive en­ergy and tough­ness. His Terps look out of sync and out of gas. They’re also run­ning out of time to fix it. For more by Dan Stein­berg, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/dc­sports­bog.

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

L.G. Gill (10) fails to cor­ral a re­bound against Iowa at Xfin­ity Cen­ter. The Hawkeyes were led by a 24-point out­burst from fresh­man guard Jor­dan Bo­han­non, who hit eight three-point­ers.

Dan Stein­berg

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