NEW YORK -- In an ordinary season, the championship of the ECAC Holiday Festival would be little more than a pleasant diversion for Maryland on its way to higher-stakes battles in the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments. But this isn't an ordinary season.
Saddled with sanctions that will keep it out of the ACC tournament this March and the NCAAs both this March and next, the Terrapins celebrated their 78-69 upset of No. 12 South Carolina in Saturday night's Festival championship game with enough gusto to last them until March.
"This is our ACC Tournament," forward Evers Burns said as the Terps stormed into their locker room after cutting down one of the nets at Madison Square Garden.
The victory could prove a springboard for the Terps, who open the ACC season Wednesday at Wake Forest (5-2). They return to Cole Field House Saturday for a 1 p.m. game against Clemson.
"They've had to fight some things that normal college basketball players don't have to go through," coach Gary Williams said. "I really appreciated that. Our players deserve whatever I can give them."
Tournament MVP Walt Williams led Maryland (6-3) with 26 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and six thunderous dunks. The 6-foot-8 junior point guard had seven points and a key blocked shot during a decisive 11-0 run that expanded Maryland's lead from 63-62 to 74-62 with 3:40 remaining.
Cedric Lewis added 12 points, eight rebounds (six offensive) and five blocked shots for Maryland. Matt Roe and Garfield Smith added 11 points apiece and Kevin McLinton scored 10 as all five starters reached double figures.
"Early in the season," Walt Williams said, "we'd go up on teams and we wouldn't be able to rebound when they made their runs. Now we do."
And now they have at least one highlight to point to in a season that still could be long and frustrating.
Said Gary Williams: "This is a big night for Maryland basketball."