For Terps, stakes vs. Va. crystal clear

NCAA berth likely prize for winner in ACC clash

March 07, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Four nights ago, they were bent on winning a tough road game, since their NCAA tournament life depended upon it. Tonight, the Maryland Terrapins figure to encounter an interstate rival in desperate need of a victory away from home for the same reason.

This is about as emotionally charged as a regular-season finale could be.

Maryland (15-11, 6-9), back off postseason life support after claiming its first ranked opponent in seven weeks with an upset of No. 16 North Carolina State, thinks it can solidify its 11th straight NCAA tournament berth by defeating Virginia.

The Cavaliers (16-10, 6-9), who hardly resembled a tournament team three weeks ago, suddenly have beaten three ranked teams, won four out of five games and figure they are headed to the NCAAs for the first time since 2001 - provided they remain the only Atlantic Coast Conference team without a loss at the two-year-old Comcast Center.

Both teams want the same thing. A 7-9 finish in the brutal ACC, the highest-rated league in the NCAA this season, is widely considered good enough to earn a nod from the 10-member tournament selection committee next Sunday.

The Terps, who are sitting with a Rating Percentage Index of 32 and a schedule that ranks fourth in the nation in terms of strength, already like their case. Maryland has beaten four Top 25 opponents. Since 1991, nearly 85 percent of the teams with an RPI in the 31-40 range have been selected for the NCAAs.

"I don't assume anything," said 15-year Maryland coach Gary Williams, who turns 59 today. "A lot can happen in the last weekend [at the conference tournament]. You just want to make sure you're in the best possible position you can be in.

"You'd like to think [7-9 gets you in]. That's what everybody has said. You don't know. The people on the committee make the decision. It's not the Internet. It's the people [on the committee]. I haven't heard any comment from them. They decide."

Before they jump into the ACC tournament this week in Greensboro, N.C., the Terps will dictate their seeding position tonight.

A win would give Maryland a sixth-place finish in the regular season, its lowest since winding up eighth in the league with a 2-14 record in 1993, the last year the school was not represented in the NCAA tournament. A loss would drop the Terps to seventh place.

Until yesterday, when Florida State lost to Georgia Tech and North Carolina State beat Wake Forest, there was a chance Maryland could have ended up in Thursday's ACC tournament play-in game.

This is not the same Virginia team that failed to generate any offense down the stretch of Maryland's 71-67 victory in Charlottesville on Feb. 4, which marked the first of three wins in the Terps' 3-5 slip last month. Senior guard Todd Billet (10.2 points per game), who was stifled that night, has won three games lately with buzzer-beating three-point shots.

The Cavaliers are playing with passion and purpose, doing it with youth and excellent bench play, and might have preserved coach Pete Gillen's job with their recent wake-up call.

"I can't explain it. We just go day by day. I don't like to talk about it too much," Gillen told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "We've been very fortunate. We have good talent, but I think we have bigger hearts."

Sparked by their three-guard set, the post work of junior Elton Brown (15.0 ppg, 6.3 rebounds) and the instant offense of reserve forward Devin Smith (12.7 ppg), Virginia has used a 13-4 home record to make its surge. Then again, the Cavaliers are 1-6 in the ACC on the road and have won at Maryland only once in the past 10 years - last season's 86-78 victory.

Freshman guard T.J. Bannister has taken over at point guard, allowing Billet more room to operate as a scorer. Bannister is coming off a 12-assist gem in Virginia's 84-82 victory over No. 11 Wake Forest on Tuesday. Freshman guard J.R. Reynolds (8.2 ppg) has shot 37.7 percent from three-point range in conference play.

Although they are just 5-8 in their past 13 games and are going for their first two-game winning streak in four weeks, the Terps have averaged 19 forced turnovers in their past four games and have enjoyed some reversals of form.

Sophomore guard Chris McCray has shot 65 percent and averaged 13.7 points over his past three games. Freshman guard Mike Jones erased a pair of scoreless outings with eight points in 14 minutes at N.C. State. Center Jamar Smith, the lone honoree in tonight's Senior Night ceremony, ended a terrible slump with a 16-point, eight-rebound performance in Raleigh.

"For a couple of games, I wasn't playing well and that was hurting my team," said Smith, who fouled out with six points and one rebound at Virginia last month. "Now, I feel like I'm re-energized. I'm going to try to go out with a bang."

Terps tonight

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

Site: Comcast Center, College Park

Time: 8

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

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