CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- All you can say about last night's first preliminary game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament was that eighth-seeded Maryland won, ninth seed Clemson lost and Walt Williams saved the Terrapins for the umpteenth time this season.
It wasn't clear who helped Maryland's cause more in an 81-75 victory before a large crowd of 16,013 at the Charlotte Coliseum. Was it Williams, who scored 38 points, one short of his career high, and broke Len Bias' single-season school scoring record? Or was it the Tigers, who made 24 turnovers and missed half of their 32 free throws?
Though Williams cooled off in the second half -- making only two of 13 from the field, 11 of 28 for the game -- he pulled down a career-high 14 rebounds, hit some big free throws and came up with a huge defensive play, blocking Devin Gray's dunk attempt with 2:36 to play.
The victory -- Maryland's first in the ACC tournament since an upset of top seed North Carolina State in 1989 -- put the Terps in today's opening round against top-seeded, top-ranked Duke.
"We had to play defense to win that game; we weren't going to win offensively," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose team shot a season-low 29 percent on 29 of 81 from the field, but committed only a season-low six turnovers. "But the thing we did was penetrate, get fouled and make our free throws. We've become a pretty good free-throw shooting team."
It came down to free throws last night. Clemson (14-14), the ACC's worst foul-shooting team, kept throwing up bricks, and Maryland (14-14) was 27 of 34. With the game still in doubt, the Terps made nine of their last 10 free throws in the final 1:16.
"I can just say, No. 1 Walt Williams, No. 2 and more importantly, our job at the foul line," said Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, whose team couldn't take advantage of the fact Maryland had three starters foul out. "We played hard. We just didn't execute."
With Maryland clinging to a 75-72 lead in the final minute, Clemson's chance to tie evaporated when Chris Whitney's pass to Steve Harris was a bit too hard and bounced out of bounds with 34.8 seconds to play. The Terps then made their last six free throws, four by reserve freshman Kurtis Shultz.
"I can't say enough about Kurtis Shultz," Gary Williams said of the 6-foot-5, 235-pounder from Baltimore. "He did a great job. He really kept his poise for a guy who hasn't been in that situation much."
Shultz, playing his longest stint of the season (12 minutes) after fouls claimed Evers Burns and Chris Kerwin, as well as Kevin McLinton, made six of six from the free-throw line. He also had four rebounds and one steal, while helping shut down Sharone Wright after the freshman center pounded Maryland on both offense and defense (eight of Clemson's 11 blocks).
"Right now, I'm just ecstatic," said Shultz, who had matched his point total for the regular season. "I can't really describe it. I think a lot of the young guys are pretty excited right now, but the regulars will bring us back down to earth."
If the regulars don't, Duke (26-2) will. Certainly the Blue Devils won't take Maryland lightly, considering the way the Terps nearly upset the country's No. 1 team on its home court less than a month ago. Maryland lost that game, 91-89, and hasn't forgotten.
Certainly Walt Williams hasn't forgotten. He spent the last seven minutes on the bench after fouling out, as the Terps came within a McLinton jump shot and a defensive rebound of beating Duke. Last night, Williams almost had to beat Clemson by himself.
"You can't say enough about Walt; he does a lot of things in all areas," said Gray, a freshman forward from Baltimore who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. "That block was a very big play. After that we started having to shoot threes."
Said Walt Williams, "I wasn't hitting my shots, but the young guys did a great job picking up the slack."
Williams carried Maryland for most of the first half. He had 26 of his team's 36 points on nine of 15 shooting at halftime, as the Terps, who shot a collective 13 of 41, trailed by three. Then down the stretch, he was left with Vince Broadnax as the only other starter, with freshmen Wayne Bristol, John Walsh and Shultz filling in.
Maryland somehow managed to survive, and had less than 17 hours to recover for Duke.
"The thing in our favor is that we played them twice," said Gary Williams. "They do a great job in that they don't change their system. The biggest problem is that some teams execute and some teams have great players. They do both."