After stutter step, UM back on break

Pivotal win at N.C. State sets up Virginia game as entryway to NCAAs

College Basketball

March 05, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Over the course of seven weeks spanning 12 games, the Maryland Terrapins had not tasted the satisfaction of beating a ranked opponent, while their season's ultimate goal appeared to be slipping away.

But in one gutty evening, the Terps pulled off the improbable, setting up a regular-season finale on Sunday with Virginia that could determine Maryland's postseason course.

The bounce is back in Maryland's step today, as the Terps savor their 70-69 upset over No. 16 North Carolina State in Raleigh on Wednesday and refocus their sights on a Sunday confrontation at Comcast Center that has huge implications for both schools.

Virginia (16-10, 6-9), which was listless and headed for postseason oblivion three weeks ago, has stormed back into the NCAA tournament picture by winning four of its past five games, including victories over top 15 opponents Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest.

Maryland (15-11, 6-9), which had not claimed a Top 25 victim since Jan. 14 before handing the Wolfpack only its second home loss of the season and earning their fourth Top 25 win of the season in the process, is sitting in a three-way tie for sixth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with Virginia and Florida State.

The Terps lack Virginia's late-season momentum, having gone 5-8 in their past 13 games. But their 11th straight NCAA tournament bid is clearly there for the taking, especially with Maryland's RPI rating of 33 and strength of schedule ranking No. 4, according to ESPN's InsideRPI.

After losing to seven consecutive ranked teams since that mid-January win over North Carolina, the Terps fought back gamely after blowing a 17-point first-half lead at N.C. State. They got strong performances from sophomore point guard John Gilchrist and senior center Jamar Smith - who contributed eight scoreless, rebound-less minutes and was benched for nearly the entire second half in Saturday's loss to Wake Forest - and felt like a team with a new lease on postseason life.

"One game changes a lot of things," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "We've put ourselves in a position to do some damage right now. Hopefully, we will."

A victory over Virginia, which lost to the Terps in Charlottesville on Feb. 4, most likely would cure the rest of Maryland's late-season ills, if Wednesday's accomplishment didn't already address them. Coupled with a loss by Florida State (18-11, 6-9), which plays at Georgia Tech on Saturday and has lost 23 straight road ACC games, a Maryland win on Sunday would leave the Terps alone in sixth place with a 7-9 ACC record.

A loss to Virginia might compel the Terps at least to advance to next week's ACC tournament semifinal round to keep alive their NCAA postseason streak.

The Terps have never made the NCAA tournament with a losing record in conference play, but this year is unique in terms of ACC credentials. The league has been ranked as the nation's most powerful for three months, and as many as six or seven teams could make the 65-team tournament.

Wake Forest (1992), Virginia (1997) and Clemson (1996 and 1998) received at-large bids with 7-9 records. Florida State (1998) is the only ACC team to get into the NCAAs with a 6-10 record, which adds to speculation that Maryland might have secured a bid with its victory Wednesday.

"We've learned to lean on each other," said Gilchrist, who overslept, was five minutes late for a team breakfast, got benched for five minutes, then led Maryland with 21 points at N.C. State. "We knew if we didn't win the game, there goes our season."

Wednesday marked the second time this season that Williams has benched Gilchrist, Maryland's leading scorer. He was late for a shoot-around and watched the opening minutes of the team's victory over George Mason on Nov. 25 in its second game of the season.

"He's learning," Williams said of Gilchrist. "You can still be an individual. But when it comes to winning, you're part of the team."

Sun staff writer Don Markus contributed to this article.

Next for Terps

Matchup: Virginia (16-10, 6-9 ACC) vs. Maryland (15-11, 6-9)

Site: Comcast Center, College Park

When: Sunday, 8 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

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