Young team rises to improbable heights

3rd straight upset, 95-87, earns No. 4 seed in NCAA

Gilchrist is named MVP

Terps Shock Duke, Win Acc Tourney

March 15, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. - The only thing missing from a magical weekend of basketball for the University of Maryland was a win over North Carolina.

Coach Gary Williams and his young Terps cut down three-fourths of the college basketball world that is known as Tobacco Road, as Maryland completed a most improbable championship at the 51st Atlantic Coast Conference tournament yesterday with a 95-87 overtime victory over Duke.

It was Maryland's first ACC tournament title in 20 years and the third in school history. And the championship came after the Terps endured an inconsistent season while using a lineup heavy on sophomores and freshmen.

"I didn't expect it this year," Williams said.

The Terps beat the tournament's top three seeds in succession in less than 42 hours, as they followed upsets of Wake Forest and North Carolina State with their biggest win of the season. Steered by tournament Most Valuable Player John Gilchrist, the performance won admirers here and impressed those who pick the 65-team field for the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, which begins this week.

Fifteen days earlier, the Terps didn't even figure to make the tournament, but they were considered one of the nation's 16 best teams last night, when they were awarded a No. 4 seed and a Thursday game in Denver against the University of Texas-El Paso.

Maryland finished sixth among nine teams during the ACC's regular season. The conference's signature event is its tournament, which might be a bigger part of the sporting tradition in this part of the South than NASCAR stock car racing.

The ACC tournament is one of the hardest tickets to secure in sports, but finding a seat is easy compared with the troubles teams from outside the state have had in securing the championship trophy.

The four teams from North Carolina have won it 43 times. Duke had claimed it a record five straight before yesterday. Duke star guard Chris Duhon had raised six fingers after the Blue Devils' semifinal win, which drew the ire of the Terps.

"If he wants to hold up six fingers when he only has five, he's never going to have a chance to do that again," said Maryland sophomore Nik Caner-Medley. "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."

The Terps' previous ACC tournament titles came in 1958 and 1984, and you could probably count on one hand those who have witnessed all three.

Jack Heise, 79, a Baltimore native and longtime Maryland booster who has taken in more than 1,500 Maryland games, is one who did.

"This is as sweet as any win we've ever had," he said.

Several current Terps weren't even born 20 years ago when sophomore Len Bias soared to tournament MVP honors and coach Lefty Driesell vowed to put the trophy on his car and drive around North Carolina. Bias died two years later, and Maryland had returned to the championship game only once, in 2000.

Williams assistant Matt Kovarik and Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow are Greensboro natives who appreciate how daunting an ACC tournament can be on out-of-state schools.

"This is the biggest thing that happens all year here," Kovarik said. "For us to come from out of state and beat three North Carolina teams, you can't imagine how that feels."

"It doesn't sound right to say this is more important than winning the national championship," Yow said. "That doesn't sound logical, but it's right there in significance, especially when you consider all this team had to deal with."

Williams, who put his program on the national map with an NCAA championship two years ago, nodded agreement. He went 1-3 as a Terps player in ACC tournaments in Raleigh and Greensboro in the mid-1960s, and his voice has been among the loudest in the quest to take it outside North Carolina.

Next year's ACC tournament will be held at the MCI Center in Washington.

It was the 18th ACC tournament for Williams, and he was momentarily taken aback when the public address announcer extended the official NCAA invitation that goes to the conference tournament champion.

"I looked around to see who he was talking to," Williams said.

His team went 7-9 in the ACC regular season, then became the first with a losing league record to win the tournament in 17 years.

Maryland became the butt of jokes after a self-inflicted, accidental shooting involving an off-duty Baltimore police detective disrupted its win Friday over Wake Forest. The Terps then showed grit in a comeback win over N.C. State - setting a record by rallying from 19 down in the second half - and yesterday's defeat of Duke.

Gilchrist, a sophomore guard from Virginia Beach, Va., scored 72 points over the weekend, including a clutch three-point play that forced overtime yesterday.

Gilchrist was joined on the all-tournament team by center Jamar Smith. The big man played little in the second half of a Feb. 28 loss to Wake Forest in College Park. The championship trophy is presented to a team's seniors, and Smith is the only Terps player in that class.

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