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Terps' Williams makes his case

March 16, 2009|By DAVID GINSBURG

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- During a season in which Gary Williams was often criticized for his poor recruiting, a determined squad of undersized players banded together to support their maligned coach.

Their joint efforts got Maryland in the NCAA tournament.

"What we went through the whole year and making it to the tournament shows how tough we are as a team and how good he is as a coach," junior guard Greivis Vasquez said. "We never gave up."

Mostly because Williams never stopped pushing the players. There were several ugly losses along the way: a drubbing at home against Morgan State, an 85-44 debacle at Duke and a near-disastrous slip up against lowly Virginia in the regular season finale. But the fiery coach never gave up on his young, undersized crew.

"All I worried about this year was my team. I didn't worry about what people said about them or anything like that because we were trying to become a good basketball team," Williams said Sunday, moments after Maryland earned the No. 10 seed in the West Region. "I think this year stands out compared to a lot of years in that it was a whole process throughout the year to get to where we could become a very good basketball team. We all worked very hard for that."

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Twenty years ago, Williams left Ohio State to become head basketball coach at his alma mater.

Maryland had flourished in the 1970s and early '80s under Lefty Driesell.

But the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias and subsequent NCAA sanctions against coach Bob Wade left the program in shambles.

Williams rebuilt the Terrapins into a force in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Maryland made 11 straight trips to the NCAA tournament from 1994-2004 and won the school's first national championship in 2002. He is the winningest coach in school history, and since 1999 only North Carolina and Duke have won more ACC games.

But during a 2-5 stretch that during which Maryland blew a 17-point lead at Miami and got embarrassed at Duke, Williams came under fire. It appeared that the Terrapins were going to miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five seasons and that the team -- with only one senior and a serious lack of height -- was indicative of Maryland's fall from prominence.

Williams' supporters held rallies before home games while others insisted that the 64-year-old had lost his passion. It got so bad that Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow felt the need to end a furor that had become a major distraction to a team still in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth.

"I really want to lay to rest these crazy rumors that are floating around related to the job security of Coach Williams," Yow said on Feb. 2. "He has my full support, as he does from the department and from the university."

Although the statement eased some of the pressure, it did not start the Terrapins on an immediate winning streak. They lost by 17 the next day to North Carolina, then two weeks later fell to Clemson by 29. But a stunning overtime win over North Carolina on Feb. 21, and two more wins in the ACC tournament -- including a dismantling of No. 2 seed Wake Forest -- got the Terrapins (20-13) a first-round date the NCAAs against California on Thursday in Kansas City.

Asked who made the most noise in the room when Maryland learned it received an invitation to the tournament, Williams replied, "It was me."

He was only kidding, but no one would have blamed him if he leaped in the air and broke out his signature fist-pump.

"I know what coach Williams has been through this year. He's had a tough time with the media over recruiting and his players," said Dave Neal, the only senior and at 6-7, 263 pounds, is the tallest starter. "The fact that we won 20 games, beat North Carolina, Michigan State and Wake, it's an awesome achievement for us. The fact that we're back in the NCAA tournament shows how great a coach he really is."

Vasquez, whose unbridled emotion on the court mirrors that of Williams on the sideline, could barely speak after learning the Terps were headed to the NCAA tournament.

"I will never forget this moment. In the preseason, people thought we were going to only win two games in the ACC and that we didn't have a chance to make it to the tournament," he said. "It's unbelievable. He never gave up on us, he kept pushing us, telling us, 'You guys can do it.' The guy can flat-out coach. I love his passion, I love his intensity. I love him as a father, as a friend and as a coach."

This just might be Williams' finest coaching job over his two-decade stay at Maryland. He's not ready to make that assertion, and it could be quite a while before he puts this roller-coaster season under review.

"It is difficult not to blur years because I've been fortunate to coach great players," he said. "You live in the moment. I'll have a chance to rate that some point in my life -- hopefully if I'm still alive after coaching."

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