Reverse karma keeps Terps alive on Nicholas' miracle shotPosted: Saturday March 22, 2003 2:00 AM
By Marc Lancaster, Special to SI.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Karma got it backward Friday night.
The lore of March is stocked with tales of last-second triumphs, from N.C. State to Valpo. Itís the beauty of this tournament, the commentators proclaim, that on a neutral court, even the lowliest of teams can prevail over a powerhouse.
That, as much as anything, made the ending of the first roundís final game so stunning. Here was defending champion Maryland about to be unseated in its opening game after a plodding second half against UNC-Wilmington. The Terps were five seconds away from permanent footnote status, but Drew Nicholas decided it was time for a Tyus Edney impersonation with a higher degree of difficulty.
His team down one, Nicholas wove downcourt and launched himself skyward behind the 3-point line, just in front of the Maryland bench. With Seahawk defenders Brett Blizzard and Anthony Terrell flying by, Nicholas drained a 3-pointer for a 75-73 upset by the favorite.
In the seconds after the shot, as Marylandís bench erupted in pandemonium, UNC-Wilmington coach Brett Brownell fell to his knees in front of the scorerís table, then rolled over on his back in disbelief. Inside the 3-point line, Blizzard stood bent over, hands on his knees. Minutes later, he spoke softly but truthfully.
"Usually, itís the other way around, itís the underdog making that shot," Blizzard said. "But unfortunately, it happened to us."
It was an almost inconceivable ending, considering the tournament spent most of the first two days starving for its trademark drama. Here were the Seahawks, down 10 points to the champs early in the second half, doing everything the script required of them.
Their surprise leading character was flat-out perfect for the setting. John Goldsberry, a skinny freshman from someplace called Vandalia, Ohio, entered the game averaging 4.2 points, with a career high of 12 set in nondescript fashion at Hofstra last month. Naturally, he turned in the most prolific distance shooting performance in tournament history, hitting all eight of his 3-pointers for a 26-point day.
He was joined belatedly by Blizzard, the teamís poster boy who started the game by missing 10 of his first 12 shots. Of course, he had to heat up in the second half. His 3-pointer with 6:10 to go tied the game, and two more from long range had the Seahawks thinking this might just happen.
It came down to execution at the end. Trailing 71-69, Maryland chose to put the Seahawks on the line late in the game. Nicholas fouled Joel Justus, a 76.9 percent free-throw shooter, with 34.9 seconds left. He missed the front end of the one-and-one.
At the other end of the floor, the Terps set up a play for senior guard Steve Blake, who had missed most of the second half after picking up his fourth foul at the 18:09 mark. Blake drained a 3-pointer from the left corner to put the Terps up one.
The Seahawks struggled down the court and eventually got the ball in the hands of big man Aaron Coombs, who was far from their first offensive option. Then, it got worse: Maryland fouled him.
So Coombs stepped up to the line that had brought him a miniscule 40.9 percent success rate this season Ö and knocked down both free throws. Sticking right to the script, you know.
Maryland was out of timeouts, but UNC-Wilmington called its final one to make sure the defense was set up properly. As it turns out, it was. The Terpsí final play was designed to go to elsewhere, and Nicholas ended up improvising his way into history.
"The play that we drew up, we really wanted to try to get the ball in Steveís hands, so he could try to create something," Nicholas said. "They did a good job of defending him and I just kind of ran up and got the ball. I just took it as far as I could and tried to make something happen. I know the shot probably didnít look the prettiest, but it went in, and I really couldnít believe it after it went through."
A coach until the end, Marylandís Gary Williams wasnít so sure Tahj Holden, who was inbounding the ball under his own basket, made the right pass. But heíll take the result.
"The funny part was, I thought we had Steve open," Williams said. "Tahj looked at him and didnít give him the ball. I was ready to kill Tahj. But he got it to the right guy."
Marc Lancaster covers college sports for the Cincinnati Post.