Maturing Terps can't wait till next season

Late-season run shows what future can be after near-miss vs. Syracuse

College Basketball

March 22, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - They aren't so young anymore, not after turning failure and frustration into such a sudden, exhilarating brush with success.

And after swallowing their second-round NCAA tournament loss to Syracuse on Saturday at Pepsi Center in Denver, the Maryland Terrapins are counting down the days until they can hit the floor again as an older, wiser basketball team.

"I can't wait to start working out with the team again and for us to get back on the court together again," freshman guard D.J. Strawberry said. "We're going to be a good team next year and in the coming years."

Why shouldn't the Terps believe they can one day be great?

The youngest team in the Atlantic Coast Conference revealed such tantalizing possibilities. After going 3-5 in February, losing three times at home and tumbling on to the NCAA tournament bubble, Maryland showed so much resolve during a thrilling six-game winning streak in March, a run Syracuse barely stopped with a 72-70 victory.

There was the absolute, must-win game the Terps took at N.C. State on March 3, followed by the come-from-behind victory over Virginia four days later in their regular-season finale at home, where coach Gary Williams punctuated the win with an impromptu victory dance, a rare show of such emotion for him.

All of which was merely window dressing compared to the feat that was to come - Maryland's first ACC tournament crown in 20 years. All the sixth-place Terps did was knock off the top three seeds in the form of Wake Forest, N.C. State and Duke to give Williams the one trophy he had yet to attain, and a reward he never expected from the most inexperienced team in his 15-year College Park tenure.

No wonder Williams was the only guy in Maryland's post-game locker room who refused to hang his head after another stirring comeback by the Terps barely fell short.

"Nobody gave us much of a shot in late February to win the ACC championship. We're the champions of the ACC. No one else is," he said.

"I know where we were on Oct. 17 [the start of practice] and where we are today. This year has been a great learning experience for me. This is as hard as I've ever worked as a coach. ... I won't beat myself up too much about this year."

The Terps were a flawed bunch whose split personality drove their coach crazy at times. But with their lapses in concentration, their wild swings in performance from half to half, their tendency to break down in half-court offense and shoot poorly, the players also earned the coach's love with their appetite for defense and a never-say-die mentality that ultimately defined them.

Consider that last year's senior-laden team never won more than five in a row. This group, led by a charismatic leader and creative scorer in sophomore point guard John Gilchrist and a sum of young, limited parts that got sharper down the stretch, won six straight and came within one shot by Strawberry of possibly going to a fourth straight Sweet 16.

"[Williams] instilled a confidence in us and let us know that if we kept working hard and kept on doing the little things, good things would happen. It was definitely tough love, and hard work started to pay off," sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley said.

The resiliency showed. Sophomore guard Chris McCray, mired in a long scoring slump, melted down during an 86-63 loss at Duke and got benched for the final 17 minutes after getting into a cursing match with Williams. McCray responded with the best ball of his career, averaging 13.8 points over his last nine games.

Senior center Jamar Smith, whose February slump reflected Maryland's stumble, got benched and played a season-low eight minutes while going scoreless in a loss to Wake Forest on Feb. 28. He averaged 14.4 points and 8.6 rebounds and revitalized the Terps' post game from that point forward.

Sophomore forward Travis Garrison showed the most promise of his young career by averaging 12.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in the postseason. Backups like Strawberry, freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe and freshman guard Mike Jones embraced their roles and improved notably.

And it was Maryland's poise that amazed Williams more than anything. Despite their warts, it was nearly impossible to beat the Terps with ease.

They erased a 19-point halftime deficit, easily the largest in ACC tournament history, to beat N.C. State in the semifinals. They erased a late 12-point Duke lead before beating the Blue Devils in overtime to win the tournament. In March, they won by three points, twice by a single point, and nearly stunned Syracuse after trailing by seven with 29 seconds left. On the year, the Terps won three of four overtime games.

"Whether we're 20 down or seven down, no matter how much time is left, it's going to be a fight until the buzzer sounds," Strawberry said.

"We're going to come back next year more hungry and more focused," Gilchrist vowed. "We've got to be animals by the time next season starts."

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