Bubble or not, Terps get their second wind going into ACC tourney

Year-ending wins increase momentum, NCAA odds

College Basketball

March 09, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Maybe they are off of the NCAA tournament bubble. Maybe not. But after salvaging their regular season by assembling a crucial two-game winning streak, after making what they feel is a strong case for inclusion in the 65-team party that will be announced Sunday, the Maryland Terrapins can loosen up as the next season approaches.

Maryland suffered a series of damaging losses down the stretch of its regular season, which included a succession of big games that exposed the team's immaturity at times. Now, the Terps' place is clear. They are the sixth-place team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, preparing to tangle with third-seeded Wake Forest in the quarterfinal round of the ACC tournament Friday night at Greensboro Coliseum.

Does Maryland (16-11, 7-9) need to beat the Demon Deacons -- who swept the regular-season series from the Terps and averaged 92 points doing it -- and advance to the tournament semifinals to solidify a spot in the NCAAs for an 11th straight year? Or is that part of Maryland's work done?

Coach Gary Williams thinks the Terps are in. He also is grateful that the rest of the season is a single-elimination affair. No looking ahead. No looking back. Just a simple series of one-game projects.

"Getting ready for the ACC tournament, you want to go out on a positive note," said Williams, who was drenched in sweat after an emotionally draining, 70-61 victory over Virginia on Sunday, four days after Maryland upset No. 16 N.C. State on the road.

"I don't talk to the players about [the NCAA tournament speculation], but they're hearing it. You can't turn on the radio, can't turn on the television without hearing bubble talk, without hearing who's in, who's not in, hearing guys change three times in a day whether we're in or not. The great thing now is you just go play games."

Overcoming Wake Forest promises to be a steep challenge, what with the Demon Deacons' deep backcourt led by freshman point guard Chris Paul and sophomore shooting guard Justin Gray.

Wake Forest (19-8, 9-7), which ended its regular season with two straight defeats, also has much-improved sophomore center Eric Williams, much-unheralded junior forward and rebounding specialist Jamaal Levy, and a rejuvenated player in junior forward Vytas Danelius. He has battled through a series of nagging injuries. He also torched the Terps for a career-high 23 points in a 91-83 victory at Comcast Center 10 days ago.

The Terps, who have won the ACC tournament only twice in its 50-year history -- 1958 and 1984 -- and have advanced to the final only once since last winning the tournament, are riding a blast of late-season momentum.

Having dropped four of five games and having gone winless in seven straight attempts against ranked opponents over a seven-week stretch, Maryland got off the deck and won when it absolutely had to do so.

What a week for Williams. First came the upset at N.C. State. Then, the come-from-behind victory over Virginia, which led early in the second half, 38-27. Besides making his 59th birthday on Thursday (it was erroneously reported to be on Sunday) more enjoyable, the final stretch culminated in an especially emotional moment for Maryland's 15-year coach.

At the final buzzer on Sunday, Williams turned to the students' section behind the Maryland bench, then leaped and pumped his fist several times. More than anything, Williams was paying tribute to his team's stubborn defense, rebounding and all-out effort.

"When you don't always see signs of hard work, it's tough to come back into the gym and do the same thing over again," Williams said. "I felt really good, because we've worked hard. We'll take our chances with this team."

NOTE: Terps sophomore point guard John Gilchrist was an all-ACC third-team selection and guard D.J. Strawberry was an honorable mention pick to the conference's all-freshman team. ... Next year's ACC tournament will take place at MCI Center in Washington, marking the eighth time since the tournament's inception in 1953 that it has been staged outside of North Carolina.

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)

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