COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Imitation is the highest form of flattery, except, like a tree in a forest, does the flattery count if the imitator doesn’t know what he has copied?
Dereck Whittenburg will never buy a drink or even a seat when his alma mater is around. He showed up Wednesday at NC State’s game at Maryland unannounced but was warmly welcomed to a courtside seat anyway.
That’s how it goes when you remain part of the most iconic clip in any March Madness highlight reel. It was nearly 30 years ago that Whittenburg launched the air ball that ended up in the hands of Lorenzo Charles, who gave the Wolfpack an improbable national championship against Houston and sent Jim Valvano desperately and wonderfully searching for someone to hug.
But 30 years might as well be 300 to 19-year-olds whose long-term memory must be encapsulated in 140 characters.
And so when Alex Len, who dropped in Pe'Shon Howard's air ball with 0.9 seconds left, was informed that he had just turned the ironic tables on NC State, making like Charles to Howard’s Whittenburg to beat the Wolfpack, the Maryland sophomore was baffled.
“I didn’t know that," the Ukrainian-born Len said. “I don’t know about that game. I’ve never heard of it."
Here’s hoping he hit Google before hitting his pillow.
Because while neither the Terrapins’ 51-50 victory over NC State nor Len’s heroics enter the zip code of Whittenburg/Charles circa 1983 importance, in context of the here and now, this was big for Maryland.
The Terrapins earlier this season won 13 games in a row and earned a collective meh from the basketball cognoscenti. The best win in that run? Stony Brook, RPI 96.
And when Maryland entered ACC play and promptly lost to Florida State and Miami, most figured the Terps were exactly what they appeared -- a fun house mirror of accomplishment.
This game was a show-me game, one to give people a reason to believe there is some meat on the Terps’ 14-3 record.
So feel free to criticize the student court-storming -- because hey, college students acting goofy and crazy is unusual and all -- but this was more cathartic than celebratory.
It had been almost three years since the Terrapins beat a ranked team (topping Duke in 2010), and while this does not ink Maryland into the NCAA tournament or even offer the promise of a win in its next game (against North Carolina), it’s a step.
And steps right now are huge.
“We haven’t won a big game here since Greivis [Vasquez] was here," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I didn’t come here to be mediocre and I know the guys didn’t come here to be mediocre. I asked them, in fact, before the game, 'Why did you come? Why did you come?’ I came here to do great things, and we haven’t done a lot of great things since I got here. This is one great thing."
It is one bad, but not lethal, thing for NC State.
Every game is something of a testing ground for the Wolfpack (14-3, 3-1 ACC) this season. Lauded early and heaped with expectation, NC State almost has to prove its value nightly. And so beating Duke became a must-win, and then winning here -- to prove that the team has the maturity to keep its head after a big victory -- was a must-win.
Instead, the Pack go home with a loss during which their usually fluid offense was rendered impotent and they never looked in sync or terribly aggressive.
It will raise some questions -- and some valid ones -- but it certainly doesn’t doom NC State.
“They all count as one," coach Mark Gottfried said. “I always say that, and there is a lot of truth to that. I’m not into the whole validating Duke thing. There are going to be teams that will finish near or at the top of this league that are going to lose some road games. We’re going to move on from it. I loved our effort, and we’re going to pick ourselves up and play on Sunday."
Strangely, Gottfried sounded almost more at ease with the loss than Turgeon did with the win.
Turgeon actually apologized at one point for not sounding more Pollyanna-positive after this victory. He had pointed out, in no particular order, how his team was 0-for-timeouts, failing to execute a single play he drew up during a break, including the final one (“It was supposed to be an up-screen, and they down-screened," he said); how his team remains so bewildered nearly three months in that he can’t risk giving players more information than they can handle and so his play calling remains fairly pedestrian; and how his team’s offense is anemic and he frankly has no clue why.
But Turgeon is brutally -- refreshingly? -- honest. His young team -- the Terps, now 2-2 in conference, start two freshmen and three sophomores -- is hardly a finished product, and anyone who walked out of the Comcast Center 100 percent convinced that Maryland had arrived isn’t paying attention.
Before the month is out, the Terrapins will go to North Carolina, Duke and Florida State, and all this good mojo might evaporate in a hurry.
So Turgeon is searching for signs and steps -- and in this game, he got a few.
“We grew up a little bit," he said. “It was a gut-check. We call it a hugger. There was a lot of hugging in the locker room, and it’s nice to have that."
The offense isn’t good -- these 51 points come on the heels of 47 points against Miami -- and there are plenty of mistakes to keep Turgeon active in the film session.
There’s also this: When it came time to win the game, Howard ran the wrong play, but he drove the ball. Against Florida State and against Kentucky, the Terrapins took jump shots and lost.
And when Howard’s ball floated in the air, Len was in the right position.
“My guy had gone over to help a little bit, and I was open," Len said of the first game-winning shot in his basketball life. “I honestly don’t remember it. I just grabbed the ball and put it back. Coach told me to go get the ball, so I did."
Whittenburg always joked that his shot was a pass, well designed and perfectly executed.
In the locker room after the game, Howard cracked the exact same joke.
Video evidence, of course, shows the contrary -- that both Charles and Len were in the right place at the right time.
Charles’ shot rewrote history.
As for Len’s shot? We’ll have to see whether it alters the course and confidence for a young Maryland team.
But it’s a step.