ATLANTA -- Dave Odom was sitting at courtside, enjoying his first ACC Tournament since leaving Wake Forest after a 12-year run in 2001. He was watching his friend and former foe from Maryland work the sidelines, and he said, "No one is better with his back against the wall than Gary Williams."
Odom offered this observation in the first half of Maryland's 74-69 quarterfinal win over NC State (RECAP | BOX). At the time, the Terrapins were struggling, on their way to a 21-8 deficit. A loss would have killed their NCAA Tournament chances and turned up the heat even more on the somewhat embattled Williams. Back to the wall? Yeah, you could say that.
So what was Williams able to do? Get his team to dig out of the hole and knot things at 29-29 at halftime, then survive a who's-gonna-blink-first second half against the inspired Wolfpack. Williams proved Odom correct, masterfully calling plays late in the game against NC State's zone that repeatedly worked to perfection.
"Coach Williams has great plays for us and if we execute, we're pretty much guaranteed an open shot," says senior Dave Neal. "We showed our zone offense has come a long way since the Wake game and our man offense has been good since the get-go."
When Neal hit a three with 10:35 to play, he put Maryland up 46-45 and launched a tremendous stretch of punch-counterpunch between the two teams. Over the next seven minutes, the lead would change hands 13 times as neither team could stop the other. NC State finally cooled, but Maryland never did, scoring on 15 of its final 16 possessions to wrap up the crucial win and set up a date with second-seeded Wake Forest on Friday.
"We have one of the best coaches in the country and the plays we run are outstanding," says box-score stuffer Greivis Vasquez, who had 17 points, 10 assists and four rebounds. "Our offense is pretty big-time."
The Venezuelan junior was the key to a majority of the execution, penetrating and either dishing or finishing. The beneficiary of a lot of those 10 assists was Eric Hayes, who came off the bench to drain five three-pointers and score a career-high 21 points. He hit two threes and Vasquez hit another to kick start Maryland's comeback in the first half.
"I'm not sure we come back without Eric," Williams said. "Sometimes when one or two guys hit some shots, everyone relaxes."
Hayes admitted to nerves before the game, and Vasquez says the Terps are embracing rather than ignoring the pressure of trying to qualify for an NCAA Tournament bid at the ACC Tournament. It is the exact opposite of another ACC bubble team that lived to play another day -- seventh-seeded Virginia Tech.
The Hokies have been desperately trying to lock up a bid for the last month, but six losses in their final seven games wrecked a 6-3 start to the ACC season and placed them on the outer edge of Bubble Nation. But instead of discussing the NCAA Tournament like they had been before seemingly every game, the topic never was broached Thursday.
"We put too much pressure on ourselves (before)," said Malcolm Delaney. "We just were loose in here and went out and played."
Whatever the secret was, it worked. Virginia Tech silenced first-team All-ACC guard Jack McClinton (nine points, seven turnovers) and broke open a close game with a dominating second half. Tech's 65-47 win (RECAP | BOX) was fueled by Delaney, who scored 17 and handed out eight assists, and senior A.D. Vassallo, who had 14 points and eight rebounds. Delaney and Dorenzo Hudson combined to thwart McClinton, and the rest of the Hurricanes could not step up.
The win set up a rematch with North Carolina, which broke the Hokies' hearts last year in the exact same situation. Virginia Tech beat Miami in the ACC tournament and needed a win over UNC to likely get in the NCAAs in 2008, but Tyler Hansbrough hit an awkward baseline jumper in the final seconds to beat Virginia Tech 68-66.
"After that day, I've blocked it out," Vassallo said. "I see him running around on ESPN (celebrating after the basket), and then I just turn my head. We can't worry about that."
The Hokies appear to be catching a huge break in their make-or-break game as ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson still is bothered by a sore toe. The two teams were even with five minutes to play just nine days ago before UNC pulled out an 86-78 win, and that was with a healthy Lawson. Should he sit out, which seems prudent given UNC's status as a likely No. 1 seed, the Hokies will not have to contend as much with the Tar Heels' scary transition game.
"They don't have anything to lose. They are a lock wherever they are. We definitely have something to lose," says Delaney, who could have been speaking out his Hokies or Maryland, two ACC bubble teams still fighting with their backs to the wall.