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Good Enough To Make Terps Find Answers

Nope, they weren’t another Cleveland State. Didn’t do a Santa Clara. Couldn’t pull a Siena.

They were just the Gonzaga Bulldogs, and with the dancing done for now, that’s enough.

It’s been enough all basketball season, and again for a brief but stirring stretch Thursday night. It just wasn’t going to be enough to beat a Maryland - alas, not enough to even make it look close - so the mythology of the NCAA Tournament will not undergo any major rewrites.

The distinctions are too subtle for myth. After all, the question for most of us all week was, “How much?” Well, 24 points is how much - 87-63 Maryland. Not the worst beating of the day or even the worst in this gym on this day, but enough to make the Bulldogs gnash their teeth a little.

But like the good teams do, Gonzaga made Maryland answer “How?” first.

The Terrapins had to find a way, a way that wasn’t their first choice by any means since Joe Smith wasn’t involved in any meaningful way.

“For the majority of the game, we showed a bit of guts and didn’t back down from them,” said center Paul Rogers, who was among the gutsier Bulldogs. “The disappointing thing is the score, but the Maryland coaches and players, I’m sure, had a few nerves.”

But not as many, obviously, as Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs made a late entrance into Huntsman Center, arriving with the clock at T-minus 18:45 and counting to tipoff. They emerged from the tunnel to see a jury of 12,369 and the co-champs of the Atlantic Coast Conference awaiting them.

The combination wasn’t deadly, but it was debilitating.

“We were definitely intimidated,” said senior forward Jason Rubright. “That’s the biggest crowd we’ve ever played in front of. We were playing against Joe Smith, an All-American and probably the player of the year, playing an ACC team and just playing against athletes like that.”

Coach Dan Fitzgerald understood.

“Anybody who is not scared with the bases loaded is a moron,” he said. “I tell you what, I was scared. When you’re in above your head, you should be a little frightened. It’s how you handle it that counts, and that comes with experience.”

So by halftime, the Zags were 15 points in the hole and let it get to 19 before convincing themselves, as Rubright said, “that they were just another team, like us.”

Well, not quite like them, but it’s all in the mind of the beholder, no?

And for the true Zags who sought hope in precedents, there were many. Cleveland State remains the patron saint of 14th seeds for knocking off Indiana in 1986, just a few hours before ArkansasLittle Rock did it to Notre Dame - upsets that if nothing else legitimized office pools all over America. In subsequent years, the likes of Austin Peay, Murray State and Siena expanded the folklore to the point that eight No. 14s have won in 10 years.

GU’s odds may have been 100 billion to one in USA Today, but history had them one in five.

And the Zags’ chances certainly looked better after a 4-minute run in the second half cut Maryland’s lead to 51-44.

David Cole had come off the GU bench to provide a spark, point guard Kyle Dixon was giving Maryland’s Duane Simpkins fits and John Rillie was doing everything but drilling 3-pointer after 3-pointer.

And Joe Smith wasn’t doing much of anything other than picking up a fourth foul. The Zags fronted and collapsed and bumped and hacked him at one end of the floor and took the ball straight at him at the other. So the Terps found a way - ironically, Gonzaga’s way. By burying 3s.

“When it got to seven, that’s when I was impressed (with Maryland),” Fitzgerald said. “They had to turn the water off and they did.”

The disappointment and wear showed in Fitzgerald’s face. His team, which hadn’t lost by more than 10 points all season, had just been spanked by 24 - GU’s worst loss since a 28-point setback to Pepperdine four seasons back.

Of course, as someone pointed out wryly, it was also Gonzaga’s worst NCAA Tournament loss this being the Zags’ only NCAA appearance.

Which was the point.

“This is a team that was picked for last in their league and didn’t really believe they would be last,” Fitzgerald said. “When they faced adversity - when they opened the league with six straight losses - they handled it. I was concerned about that in October and I was concerned about it tonight, but the fact is, when things looked worst for them in this game, they found a way to handle it.

“It’s frustrating. I don’t ever want our kids to accept losing, but I’m enormously proud of them and the 24 points difference on the scoreboard don’t change that a bit.”

In the end, they could only be what they’d been all season.

Good enough. This year, any year.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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