GREENSBORO, N.C. — For a while, it looked like Maryland might finish its final competition as an ACC member in any sport as a champion.
And then the wheels fell off for the Terrapins, allowing Georgia Tech to take advantage and come away with a 9-4, clinching the ACC tournament championship.
Maryland tok a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, but the Terps would not score again, as Georgia Tech used a combination of three different relievers to hold down the fort — none of whom were ACC Tournament MVP Dusty Isaacs, who went 1-0 with two saves in three appearances (while striking out 11).
But it was Maryland’s own bullpen that let it down, uncharacteristically. After taking the lead, the Terps’ Kevin Mooney had an error and a wild pitch that contributed to a big three-run inning for the Jackets.
Georgia Tech would add two more in the ninth and the Terps couldn’t get their bats to heat up again.
Neither Maryland nor Georgia Tech was a team that anyone would have picked coming into this year’s tournament. Maryland was in a pool with two of the best three teams in the league, and Georgia Tech had to win the play-in game just to get into its pool, which included one of the hottest teams in the country (Miami).
But Georgia Tech (36-25) went 4-1 over the course of six days in Greensboro to come out victorious, and to take itself off the NCAA tournament bubble — with the ACC’s automatic bid.
Georgia Tech has a history of doing well in this event, even if it’s not considered the best team in the field.
The Yellow Jackets have won nine championships, tied for the most with Clemson, including two of the last three crowns. Their last title — 2012 — was the unexpected, but welcome conclusion to an up-and-down season that included a 12-18 record in league play.
Georgia Tech head coach Danny Hall knew his team’s success this week would likely determine their NCAA tourney fate.
"Oh, we talked about it," Hall said laughing. "I felt like we had a good RPI, a good strength of schedule. … The only time I mentioned it (during the tournament) was prior to playing Clemson, at batting practice, and I felt like the guys felt they were in the tournament, and I told them we were not in the tournament.
"I told them if they beat Clemson, we could wind up in the championship game and that happened, thanks to Miami.
"I said, ‘If you beat Clemson, you’re going to put yourselves in the NCAA tournament, so we were able to do that. Today, we’re in because we won the championship. That’s the way to do it — take all the doubt out of it and win the tournament, and you’re in."
This was Maryland’s first ACC Tournament appearance, period, since 2005 and its first appearance in the championship game since 1976. But the Terps weren’t just happy to be there, even as they finished the season 36-21 with a top-25 RPI.
"You never want to get in a championship game and lose. This is the first time as a head coach I’ve lost a championship. Well, first time since 1998, and God knows my kids weren’t even born then," Maryland head coach John Szefc said.
"You don’t want to get here and lose the game, but unfortunately somebody’s got to lose. Hopefully we will get something out of this, and I think we have a chance to do well in the NCAA Regional coming out of this tournament."
And that was the bright side, he said, of coming out on the losing end — the Terps now must sit around a table somewhere back in College Park on Monday and watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, knowing they’ll be a part of it.
"As tough as this one is, tomorrow we will be sitting in a restaurant in College Park, hopefully getting a good feel as to where we might be playing next weekend in the NCAA Tournament," Szefc said. "That’s been kind of a goal for us for a long time, since I got here — certainly since a lot of these other guys have been here well before I got here."
It felt, in some ways, like the end of an era. The ACC tournament will return to Durham Bulls Athletic Park starting next season (through 2018), and Greensboro — the birthplace of the ACC, and frequent host of some of its biggest events — might just be left by the wayside, as expansion necessitates the league service more of its members.
But both head coaches took time — unprompted — to compliment their hosts in Greensboro, a city that loves holding these events.
"The tournament was run very, very well by the ACC. People were very professional and it was a great week for our guys, and our program in general, families. Outside of not winning this thing, I have no regrets whatsoever about coming down here. Our program grew by leaps and bounds this week." said Szefc.
Maryland won’t be in the league anymore, either, moving on to the Big Ten Conference next season.
"We will miss the competition. There are good teams in this league, really good coaches that I consider friends of mine that I really respect," Szefc said. "Not saying we won’t get that in the Big 10 because I think we will, but there are special programs in this league, special coaches and the programs and teams, and I think we will miss that.
"I think any baseball coach would tell you that and if he didn’t, he’s lying."