The tears welled up in Gary Williams' eyes. His voice waffled so badly he had to stop in mid-sentence. It had nothing to do, directly, with losing to top-ranked Duke, or Walt Williams' missing 20 of 29 shots, or being eliminated from the ACC tournament or a trying season coming to an end. Gary Williams was visibly overcome and winning might have held his emotions in check for one more day, max.
This was about beginnings and endings, really. Maryland basketball, finally, has been let out of jail. When the final buzzer sounded, NCAA probation ended. It was as if the Terrapins, the coach in particular, could come out of that hunched stoop and stand up again. He was overwhelmed because his team played hard and with honor even without the enticement of tangible reward. He was overwhelmed because Walt Williams stayed, ensuring that the cupboard never was bare. He was overwhelmed because as a basketball coach, he can now stop being a fireman.
"We played hard today," Gary Williams said. "It's something you can appreciate as a coach. Everybody wants to check out your record (14-15). But I know how much we've given, the roles they were willing to accept. Hopefully, we'll build from this. I hope the University of Maryland appreciates what Walt did for the university during tough times. The sanctions are over today. We'll go from here and see how far we can get.
"This coming week, I'll look at everything that's happened in the past three years," he continued, but not before stopping for several seconds to regain his composure. "This game today, we lost and that's the thrust right now. But I know we can be as good as anybody at Maryland. For the past three years we put out fires, we recovered. Now we can play basketball like any other program. That's important for me personally. Andy Geiger (the director of athletics) has done things to make sure we've got things in place now. The trust is there now and we can go about our business."
That business will be trying to build a team that can close the gap between Maryland, as it stood Friday, and Duke, the best team in the country. That gap is smaller than anybody at Maryland could have had a right to expect. Seven points? Duke has at least six future NBA players, Maryland has one. Evers Burns, a junior forward, played his 250-pound butt off. He scored a career-high 25 and grabbed 10 rebounds to somewhat neutralize Duke's Christian Laettner (33 points, 16 rebounds). Kevin McLinton had 17 and eight assists. Had Walt Williams not injured his right hand just below the thumb in Thursday night's victory over Clemson, we might not even be discussing beginnings and endings for another 24 hours.
The hard-to-impress Mike Krzyzewski later recalled a lopsided Duke victory at Maryland early in the season, "a 17-point game that was probably a 25-, 30-point game," he said. "That's how far this team has come along."
That's why Gary Williams told his team in the post-game locker room, "Whatever Maryland basketball does the next five-to-10 years is a direct result of what you've done. If it wasn't for the way you accounted for yourselves, we'd be starting (the post-probation era) from 4-24; the severity of the sanctions were that tough. Because of Walt and Vince Broadnax and Matt Roe and Cedric Lewis staying, people could look at us and say, 'If they didn't leave, it must be a pretty decent place.' Because of that we were able to step up recruiting quicker.
"People, if they know anything about the game and if they know anything about people, will appreciate what they did," Williams said. "That's dedication. They didn't get what you can get out of playing college basketball. They got it from within."
Then, Gary Williams said something you can only appreciate if you know the struggle his team has seen. "They're a great team," he said. He began to explain, but he didn't have to. A team that, under the existing circumstances, could have finished 4-24 but ended up almost break-even and could have beaten any team in this tournament except Duke, certainly has accomplished something great.
Maryland, in fact, had every bit as good a season as Virginia, which might have shot itself right out out of a NCAA-tournament bid with a 24.7 percent performance against Georgia Tech that you had to see to believe. Bryant Stith was four-for-22, but close on his heels were teammates Cory Alexander (four-for-19) and Junior Burrough (five-for-15). Does Virginia, at 15-13, 8-9 in ACC play, deserve to go to the tournament? Of course not. Not before teams like Wisconsin-Green Bay and James Madison, who are better than Virginia but will probably be penalized because the misguided selection committee thinks we need to see overrated schools from big conferences.
Nothing was more indicative of the spirit of Maryland's season than Walt Williams trying to play the first half with his bruised right hand wrapped, then trying to make a go of it without the wrap the second half. Suppose he had gone, say, 13 of 29? "I'll think about that, yeah," Gary Williams said. "But he never asked out. It might have been out of his control, but he was out there trying."
Then, the coach might have found the most consoling thing of all. Disappointment. You can always identify the real nothing teams because they talk about moral victories and about playing the big boys close. The Terps, in fact, were literally defiant, mostly in the person of Burns who after fouling out late refused to give the Dukies the satisfaction of sitting on the bench, as they demanded. "There was nobody in there saying 'We played the No. 1 team in the country pretty close,' " Williams said. "They expected to win. They were disappointed." That's as good a starting point as any.