COLLEGE PARK - They went through another two-hour exercise marked by pain, anxiety and, of course, bad shooting. But after summoning enough strength and will to stage a second-half rally against Virginia last night, the Maryland Terrapins probably have paved the way to their 11th consecutive NCAA tournament.
Led by a career-high 20 points from sophomore shooting guard Chris McCray and a tremendous effort on defense and the offensive boards, Maryland erased an 11-point second-half deficit and put away upset-minded Virginia, 70-61, before a sellout crowd of 17,950 at Comcast Center.
The victory gave Maryland (16-11) the two-game winning streak it craved. The Terps concluded the regular season in sixth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 7-9 record in league play, which appears to be good enough to keep their postseason streak alive.
Maryland's next assignment is the quarterfinal round of the ACC tournament. On Friday, the Terps will face third-seeded Wake Forest, which swept the regular-season series against Maryland.
When the final buzzer sounded, the emotion roaring throughout the arena got the best of Maryland coach Gary Williams, who turned to the student section behind the Terps' bench, leaped in the air and pumped his fist several times.
"I felt really good, because we work hard. I'm really proud of these guys because they didn't stop. They kept trying," Williams said. "I thought our defense in the second half was exceptional. The whole thing was the energy. X's and O's are important. At this level, if you don't have energy and enthusiasm, you're not going to win. It came down to who was going to grind it the most."
Maryland grinded, all right. On a night when they shot just 34.3 percent and missed 17 of 21 three-point shots, the Terps trumped Virginia (16-11, 6-10) with pure heart and hustle.
After falling behind 34-27 at halftime, then giving up four points after committing two quick turnovers to start the second half, the Terps closed the door on the Cavaliers, who were desperately trying to make a case for the NCAA tournament selection committee next week.
Instead, Virginia crumbled by managing 27 second-half points, shooting 33.9 percent on the night and getting out-rebounded on the offensive end in the second half, 14-4. The Cavaliers got a combined 2-for-20 shooting performance from guards Todd Billet and T.J. Bannister, shot 3-for-21 from three-point range, committed 15 turnovers, and limped back to Charlottesville, having finished with a 1-7 road record in ACC play.
Billet, who had won three games with buzzer-beating three-pointers to spark Virginia's 4-1 streak going into last night, was 1-for-14 overall and 0-for-10 from beyond the arc.
"It was about which team wanted it more. They're 6-9. We're 6-9. But we wanted to win bad and we played our best basketball of the night after that point," said McCray, referring to the timeout Williams called after the Terps had fallen into that 38-27 hole with 19:23 left.
McCray led the comeback, which started with a 25-6 burst, staking the Terps to a 52-44 advantage with 7:29 left.
McCray scored 15 of his points in the second half. He picked off a Virginia pass, dribbled the length of the court and scored on a slam to tie the game at 42 with 11:32 left. He then scored the last six points of the run, the last four coming on back-to-back, 15-foot jumpers.
Playing his last home game, senior center Jamar Smith scored all 10 of his points after halftime and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. Sophomore Nik Caner-Medley finished with 13 points. Maryland also got a huge boost from freshman Ekene Ibekwe, who had nine points, eight rebounds, and made five of seven free throws.
That was enough to counter the various defensive sets Virginia used to contain Maryland point guard John Gilchrist, who was held to six points, but still hurt the Cavaliers with eight rebounds, including five at the offensive end.
"In games like this, when the shots aren't falling, you've got to do whatever you can to make sure their shots aren't falling," Gilchrist said. "We were playing timid at first. When you think too much, it affects your game. Do everything necessary to win the game."
Maryland could not hold its eight-point lead, thanks in part to Virginia center Elton Brown (16 points, seven rebounds), who scored four points during a 13-5 run to pull the Cavaliers even with Maryland at 57 with 4:27 left.
But the Terps threw one more punch with their defensive pressure, then showed impressive touch at the free-throw line by making nine of their last 12 attempts. The key sequence came with 38.4 seconds left and Maryland in front 64-61.
Smith, who has struggled mightily all year at the line, made one of two attempts. On his second miss, the ball caromed back to him on the foul line, and the Terps burned a few more seconds before McCray was fouled.
He sank both foul shots to give Maryland a 67-61 lead with 33 seconds remaining.
Judging by the raucous celebration that ensued on the floor and the attitude in the post-game locker room, the Terps, with their four victories over ranked teams and their strong finish, think they have earned an NCAA tournament berth.
"You win some games and you lose some. It's a marathon," Gilchrist said. "We've won some big games, but that's up to the selection committee. We'll just pray and cross our fingers and hope that everything is a go."
Next for Terps
ACC tournament quarterfinal: Maryland (16-11, 7-9) vs. Wake Forest (19-8, 9-7)
Site: Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum
When: Friday, 9:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)