Comeback kids reign

Terps again refuse to quit, stop Duke in OT to win first ACC tourney since '84

6th seeds erase 12-point deficit

Gilchrist scores 26, leads 3rd straight big upset

`like this was meant to be'

Acc Tournament

March 15, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. - Is this getting a little spooky, or what? Was that really the Maryland Terrapins cutting down the nets at Greensboro Coliseum yesterday? Wasn't this the same team that seemed to be on postseason life support two weeks ago?

Wake up, because it's all very real. In one dramatic weekend, the Terps rid themselves of two decades of Atlantic Coast Conference tournament frustration, overcame three favorites while doing it and grew up in ways that did not appear possible late last month.

All the sixth-seeded Terps did yesterday was complete their destruction of any NCAA tournament bubble talk by erasing a late 12-point deficit to force overtime, then staring down the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils with tremendous composure at the free-throw line to capture their first ACC tournament since 1984 with a 95-87 victory.

What a dizzying 40 hours it was for the Maryland program. The Terps started their stunning run by outlasting third-seeded Wake Forest late Friday night, then spotted second-seeded N.C. State a 19-point halftime lead on Saturday before staging the biggest second-half comeback in the tournament's 51-year history.

Then came the denial of Duke's sixth consecutive tournament title, which earned Maryland an automatic NCAA tournament bid to mark its 11th straight trip to the party.

Terps coach Gary Williams, who has suffered his share of downers in this setting - he had gone 3-10 against teams from North Carolina in his 15 years in College Park and had advanced beyond the ACC tournament semifinals once - digested a 3-0 sweep against Carolina teams that gave him a feeling of satisfaction topped only by winning the school's first NCAA crown two years ago.

"I kept wondering why we would come down here and not play well. I would say the last 10 years we've had some pretty good teams. I didn't expect it this year, to be honest," Williams said. "We really had to stay together. We spent every day talking about how we were getting better. It didn't always show because of some of the teams we were playing in this league.

"We've worked hard all year. We lost some games we might have been able to win, but we never quit. The week before the ACC tournament, we won two [regular-season] games we had to win. Then we came down here with a lot of confidence. It's a tremendous accomplishment for the players."

While completing the weekend by becoming the fifth No. 6 seed to win the tournament championship, the Terps matured in telling ways. They revealed their passion and heartbeat in the form of tournament MVP John Gilchrist. They stepped up for three days to make clutch shots with eerie efficiency. They played hard-nosed defense whenever it was most needed, survived against Duke with two starters having fouled out and their sixth man down with a sprained ankle.

And all weekend, they defined themselves as a team that refuses to die.

Maryland (19-11), which had not won four straight games since opening the season at 4-0, now owns its first five-game winning streak, has beaten four ranked opponents in the past 11 days and is on the verge of achieving its eighth consecutive 20-victory season.

The wild ride left the Terps, a team run mainly by sophomores and freshmen, crying tears of happiness on the court and in the locker room. And it left sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley shaking his head while contemplating the blur of success that has transformed Maryland from a team on the NCAA tournament bubble to the No. 4 seed in the Phoenix Regional.

"This is such a crazy thing to happen," Caner-Medley said. "The way it happened is just unbelievable. It happened so fast. We were just focused on beating Wake, then it was being down by 19 and hey, let's not get embarrassed. Then, we play Duke, which just killed us [by 23 points on Feb. 22]. It's almost like this was meant to be."

"When you go through obstacles like we've been through, you feel like nothing can faze you," said Gilchrist, referring to the way Maryland brushed itself off while confronting a 74-62 Duke lead with 4:58 left. "We were down, but we weren't out, and we were going to give [Duke] hard pushes to the buzzer."

The Terps pushed all day. They set the tone by pounding the ball inside to senior center Jamar Smith and sophomore forward Travis Garrison (who were first and second team All-Tournament, respectively), did not trail for the game's first 21 minutes, had their interior defense dented during Duke's determined second-half run, then answered with Gilchrist and Smith leading the charge.

Gilchrist finished his official coming-out party by scoring a game-high 26 points and adding seven rebounds and six assists. He committed just six turnovers and averaged 24 points in three games. Smith, the Terps' lone senior, scored 19 of his 25 points after halftime, grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds and had four assists. Garrison scored a career-high 19 points with seven rebounds.

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