Monday, March 08, 2004

Get Out the Dancing Shoes!

Originally posted on "TerpTown" on the network and syndicated to Yahoo

By any reasonable estimation, the Maryland Terrapins punched their dance ticket tonight, securing their 11 th straight NCAA bid with an emotional 70-61 win at Comcast Center. Of course, it wasn't easy.

The tone of the first half was set very early. After Virginia (16-11, 6-10) scored on the game's first possession, Maryland (16-11, 7-9) proceeded to miss a three-pointer and grab the offensive rebound FOUR TIMES on their first possession before finally turning the ball over. The Cavaliers returned the favor by missing four shots on their next possession before committing a turnover. Ugh!

Virginia coach Pete Gillen, determined not to let the Terps' John Gilchrist dominate the game the way he had down in Charlottesville, had his team play a box-and-one defense much of the first half. This setup is essentially a 2-2 zone with one player matched up man-to-man, this time on Gilchrist. One of the players in the zone usually cheated over toward Gilchrist when he moved into their area. The idea was not to let number 11 beat Virginia again, and it was effective. Gilchrist did not take a shot until knocking down a jumper with 9:33 remaining in the half, and was only 1-2 at halftime.

Maryland took an 18-13 lead after a 11-4 run. Five different players scored during this spurt, which forced Gillen to burn his second time out with 8:23 left in the half. The Terps' offense went into the deep freeze after that break, scoring only one hoop (a three-pointer by Nik Caner-Medley) over 6:15. The Cavaliers weren't exactly lighting up the scoreboard, but they moved out to a 26-22 lead. Devin Smith came off the bench to spark Virginia with seven points during this stretch.

Chris McCray, who returned to the starting lineup tonight, briefly broke the Cavs' momentum with a three, but Virginia closed the half with an 8-2 run to lead 34-27 at halftime. The Cavaliers had outscored the Terps 21-9 since trailing 18-13 and appeared to be in control of the game.

The shooting in the first half was abysmal, horrific, gruesome-well, you get the idea. It was really, really bad. Virginia made a rousing 32.4% of their shots, including only 1-9 three-pointers, but Maryland topped that (in a bad way) by shooting only 28.6%. The teams combined to make 22-72 shots in the half.

Afterwards, Maryland coach Gary Williams said, “It was interesting at halftime. We had to dig deep and see how much we wanted the game.” McCray said the feeling was, “We've got to go fight. We can't give up on ourselves.”

The early returns were not positive with two Terrapin turnovers and two Cavalier hoops giving Virginia their biggest lead, 38-27, only 37 seconds into the second half.

At this point, Williams called a time out. “I was trying to change the body language of the team,” he said later. “It had nothing to do with X's and O's.” Whatever he said, it worked. Maryland immediately embarked on an 8-0 run and, just when they were on the verge of being blown out, stormed back into the game.

McCray started the run with a baseline jumper, then Jamar Smith, playing his final home game on Senior Night, tossed in a jump hook. Gilchrist scored on a pull-up jumper on a fast break, and McCray and Smith each added free throws. The Comcast Center crowd, which had grown quiet, exploded and stayed loud the rest of the night. Williams thanked them after the game, saying “When we got down 11, we appreciated everyone staying and making a lot of noise.”

The Terps still trailed 42-38 when they had their most spectacular run of the night. Smith started it when he finished a drive by throwing down a powerful dunk, probably releasing some frustration from what became a 3-13 shooting night. McCray then came up with a steal and, running ahead of the defense, flew in for a reverse breakaway dunk. Williams joked afterwards that he asked McCray if he got an extra point for degree of difficulty. D. J. Strawberry then put Maryland ahead by slashing through the lane and driving for a layup.

After an Elton Brown follow shot tied the score again at 44-44, the Terps appeared to take control of the game by scoring the next eight points. Smith followed a Strawberry miss, then McCray scored the next six points. The first hoop was courtesy of Strawberry, who made a steal and dished to McCray for a layup. The next two baskets were on the identical play, when McCray cut into the lane, was thrown a pass at the perfect time, and swished the jump shots. Maryland 52-44 lead had come as a result of outscoring the Cavailers 25-6 since Williams' time out in the first minute of the second half.

Virginia, playing tough for a team that had not defeated a quality team on the road all season, drew even at 57-57 with a 13-5 burst of their own. The Cavaliers scored a mind boggling 13 points on their next five possessions, with Devin Smith scoring on both a conventional three-point play and making a three-point shot.

Williams called another time out with 4:22 to play, and again achieved the desired results. Maryland scored the next seven points, amazingly five of them coming on free throws. Smith made 1-2 from the line, Gilchrist made two, Strawberry scored on a layup off a behind-the-back pass from Smith, and McCray made two free throws. The Terps had an apparently safe 64-57 lead with only 2:16 remaining in the game.

Virginia made one last gasp attempt to pull the game out, and closed within 64-61 after Elton Brown knocked down a jumper and made two free throws. Maryland, although not without some anxious moments, closed the game out at the foul line.

While D. J. Strawberry was on his way down the court to score the final basket just before the buzzer, Gary Williams cut loose and celebrated, going beyond his usual animated fist pumps and actually becoming airborne for a brief moment. McCray commented on Williams' celebration, “I loved it. He's been sticking with us all through the ups and downs all year and we really wanted to get better for him and for ourselves. That's what we did tonight, we went out and made him proud of us.”

Following his team's 70-61 win, Williams explained that outburst, “I felt really good because we worked REALLY hard. I'm proud of these guys because they didn't stop trying.”

Maryland's defense never stopped in the second half. Williams said, “I thought our defense in the second half was exceptional.” Williams' troops held the Cavaliers to 36% shooting after halftime, and out-rebounded Virginia 27-16 in the second half.

Chris McCray scored a career-high 20 points to lead Maryland, while Caner-Medley added 13 (4-13 shooting, 3-8 from three) and Smith chipped in ten points (3-13 shooting). Smith also pulled down 12 rebounds, posting his second double-double in ACC play. Gilchrist, Caner-Medley, and Ekene Ibekwe all added eight rebounds apiece. McCray also came up with five steals.

Maryland shot only 34.3% for the game, better than the Cavaliers' 33.9%. The Terps have held onto the ball well recently and committed only 11 turnovers tonight while forcing 15 from Virginia.

The Cavs were led by Elton Brown with 16 points, Devin Smith with 15 off the bench, and J. R. Reynolds with 14 points. Virginia sharpshooter Todd Billet suffered through a horrific night, making only 1-14 shots and was 0-10 from beyond the arc.

Afterwards, Gilchrist commented on how the team stayed together. “We've never let the negativity into this locker room,” Gilchrist said. “Give credit to Coach. He never stopped believing in us. You look up in the rafters, you don't want to be remembered as a loser.”

This team, at least, will likely not be remembered as the team that broke the NCAA Tournament streak thanks to tonight's win. Williams said, “We'll take our chances with this team.” Regardless of what happens in next week's ACC Tournament, they'll now have a chance in the big dance.

Notes From Under the Shell
Maryland finished sixth in the ACC with a 7-9 record. Wake Forest won a coin toss tonight over Georgia Tech to claim the third seed in the ACC Tournament. Both teams had finished with identical 9-7 conference records.

The lineup for next week's ACC Tournament, again being held in Greensboro, North Carolina, is as follows: Virginia and Clemson face off in the dreaded play-in game on Thursday at 7:00 PM. On Friday, #1 Duke plays the play-in winner at 12:00, #4 Georgia Tech plays #5 North Carolina at 2:30, #2 NC State faces #7 Florida State at 7:00, and #6 Maryland takes on #3 Wake Forest at 9:30. On Saturday, the winners of the #1 vs. play-in and #4 vs. #5 games meet at 1:30 followed at 4:00 by the winner of the #2 vs. #7 game facing the winner of the #3 vs. #6 game. The championship is Sunday at 1:00 PM. ESPN will carry the games nationally, while the Raycom/Jefferson Pilot network will televise them in the ACC region.

Duke has won the last five ACC Tournaments, the longest streak in the 50-year history of the conference. Maryland has won it twice, in 1958 and 1984. Gary Williams has reached only one final, in 2000 vs. Duke. His all-time record in the tournament is 11-13.

Maryland now has a 97-63 all-time record vs. Virginia. The Terps have won five of the last seven and ten of the last 11 at College Park. Virginia was the first ACC to post a win at Comcast Center last season.

The Terrapins did not report a single unsold ticket this season, setting a school record with an average attendance of 17,950 for 16 games. This breaks last season's record of 17,566 per game.

All three members of the Washington Wizards University of Maryland alumni chapter, Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, and recently signed Lonny Baxter were in attendance tonight. The honorary captain was Keith Booth, who was serenaded with the familiar “Boooooooth” chant.

Walking by the press area before the game, I saw a pleasant looking elderly gentleman sitting at one of the tables munching on some popcorn. I quickly recognized that is was none other than Red Auerbach, legendary coach and executive of the Boston Celtics. I asked him what brought him to the Comcast Center tonight. He said simply, “I'm just here to watch a ball game.” How great was that?


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