NEW YORK -- Maybe it was the idea of playing in the big city. Maybe it was the chance to be part of a tournament, any tournament. Or maybe it was Walt Williams living up to his reputation, if not his abilities.
For whatever reason, the University of Maryland basketball team and its junior point guard starred last night against Rutgers in the opening round of the ECAC Holiday Fest at Madison Square Garden.
The result was a fall-from-ahead, come-from-behind 86-81 victory over Rutgers and a 30-point performance by Williams. The victory, the third straight for Maryland (5-3), put the Terrapins into tomorrow night's championship game against 12th-ranked South Carolina, one of the surprise teams in college basketball this season. The Gamecocks won for the ninth time in 10 games, holding off Brigham Young in the second game, 52-49. It will mark the fourth straight year that these two former Atlantic Coast Conference rivals have played.
"Even if we were going to play in the ACC tournament or the NCAA tournament this year, we would look at this tournament as special," said Williams, who added nine rebounds, seven assists and, for one night, could be forgiven for his eight turnovers. "This whole season is special for us."
Williams was special last night. Though not a one-man show, since Maryland had three other players in double figures, he was its headliner. There was the 55-foot heave at the halftime buzzer to put the Terps ahead, 55-51. There was go-ahead basket on a 17-foot leaner with 1 minute, 19 seconds remaining to put Maryland up, 80-78.
And there was a lot in between. Not only did Williams lead Maryland's offense, but he and Cedric Lewis spurred bbTC tenacious 1-3-1 zone defense. It forced Rutgers (5-3) into nine straight possessions without a point after the Scarlet Knights had taken a 76-71 lead.
That stretch, which lasted nearly six minutes, was the difference for Rutgers. But Scarlet Knights coach Bob Wenzel said he thought his team's third straight loss was more the result of poor execution than Maryland's defensive pressure.
"We made some silly plays," said Wenzel. "Their experience showed and our inexperience showed."
Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "Even if you don't get steals and turnovers, it breaks their rhythm. It helped us gain control of the game."
Not only did Maryland come up with some key steals -- the Terps had 13 for the game -- but Lewis also shut down Rutgers' leading scorer, Keith Hughes, in the last 15 minutes. Hughes finished with 19 points, but was 8-for-22 from the field.
"I thought I could take any of their guys inside," said Hughes. "But Lewis stayed with me, and when he blocked a couple of shots I was frustrated."
Said Lewis, "I didn't shoot a lot, but I dedicated myself most of the night to defense." Lewis had five steals, five blocks and altered several other shots. "If I can stop my man from scoring 20, then it makes up for me not scoring."
It appeared that Maryland had control midway through the first half. The Terps led twice by as many as 13, and were ahead by 42-31, but the Scarlet Knights closed their deficit to 51-50 before Williams swished in a bomb at the buzzer.
When Rutgers charged ahead in the second half, it looked as if Maryland was going to follow a scenario that had resulted in successive losses earlier in the season to West Virginia, Boston College and Jacksonville. That is, storm in front and collapse at the end.
"I think the difference tonight is that we committed ourselves to playing 40 minutes," said Gary Williams. "I think it's a very big win for us because it will get us to believe in ourselves. I compare it with last year's tournament in Hawaii."
In that instance, Maryland was coming off a disheartening loss at home to Coppin State, only to win the Chaminade Classic over National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament-bound East Tennessee State. At that point, Gary Williams made Walt Williams his lead guard, and the Terps went on to a 19-14 season.
But this was different. Despite victories over California-Irvine and Lafayette, the Terps had not played well. And Williams was coming off a 10-point, five-turnover performance in which he fouled out in just 19 minutes against the Leopards.
"That was a tough game for us," said Gary Williams. "We were coming off final exams, there weren't many fans and I don't think the players respected Lafayette that much. But playing in a tournament like this, at the Garden helps, whether there's 20,000 or 10,000."
Though the Garden was less than half-filled (9,260), Maryland played this opening-round game of the Holiday Festival as if it were the ACC tournament or the NCAA tournament, neither of which the Terps will be allowed to participate in because of the terms of its probation.
"We came here to win it," said Walt Williams.
And, thanks to Williams, Maryland has a chance to do just that.