Monday, March 15, 2004

Terps Win ACC Championship

Orignially posted on "Terp Town" on the network and syndicated to Yahoo

Two weeks ago, many Maryland fans (and an analyst who will remain nameless) were braced for the school's streak of NCAA Tournament appearances to end tonight when the brackets were announced. Instead, they are celebrating the return of the ACC Championship trophy to College Park after a 20-year wait and preparing for their team's 11 th consecutive dance.

It's official-the Terps are on an amazing roll. Earlier this season, they lost seven consecutive matchups against Top 25 teams. This weekend, they defeated three ranked teams (Wake Forest, NC State, and Duke) within less than 48 hours to earn coach Gary Williams his first conference tournament title as a head coach. Maryland, as a #4 seed, joins Wake (#4), State (#3), and Duke (#1) in the NCAA's along with fellow ACC members Georgia Tech (#3) and North Carolina (#6).

As many times as Maryland sent powerful teams into the ACC Tournament only to lose to a lower seed, this hardly seemed as if it would be the year to walk away with the trophy. The Terps had only won two of the previous 50 tournaments, in 1958 and 1984.

Most of those previous Terp teams (excluding the Juan Dixon squads) lacked a player who could, through sheer force of will, led the team to play up to or even beyond their abilities. Come to think of it, this year's team lacked that for most of the season. Not anymore. Say hello to the heart and soul of the 2003-04 Maryland Terrapins, John Gilchrist.

After an exceptional effort against NC State on Saturday, Gilchrist was merely good for most of the game, but great when it was needed. With Maryland trailing 77-74 and clock down to less than 25 seconds to play in the game, Gilchrist saw the opportunity to make a play and he seized it.

Duke's big man Shelden Williams had been caught on a defensive switch and was matched up on Gilchrist, who had the ball on the right wing. Gilchrist had the basketball IQ to recognize he could drive by Williams, and had the heart to take on the responsibility of possibly deciding the game for his team. Gilchrist scored on a layup and, as an important bonus, drew Williams' 5 th foul. Gilchrist tied the game by knocking down the ensuing free throw with 20.5 seconds left. J. J. Reddick, as he did most of the day, missed a three-pointer that could have won the game for Duke with three seconds left.

Gilchrist's shot capped an amazing comeback for the Terps. Duke had the game under control, leading 74-62 when Gary Williams called his final time out with 4:49 to play. Chris Duhon had just taken the ball coast-to-coast on an inbound play and scored on a layup. Duke would not score another basket for the next for the next 8:11.

The Blue Devils, who have won so many games by making clutch shots and showing poise down the stretch, did neither today. Instead, it was Maryland who made the plays. Nik Caner-Medley ended the 11-2 Duke run with a driving layup following a Travis Garrison block of a Duhon shot. Moments later, Garrison rejected Duhon again and Jamar Smith scored on a nifty drive.

After Smith missed a layup, Gilchrist was fouled on the follow. He missed the second of two free throws but Mike Jones rebounded for Maryland. He got the ball to Gilchrist, who was sent to the line again and made both shots. Jones came up huge moments later when he coolly knocked down a three-pointer to cut the Blue Devils' lead to 75-74 with 33 seconds left. Luol Deng made two foul shots to give Duke a three-point lead before Gilchrist sent the game into overtime.

Maryland finished regulation on a 15-3 run, but Duke's Daniel Ewing scored the first two points of overtime from the foul line. Caner-Medley and McCray had fouled out, leaving the Terps with a lineup including Mike Jones and seldom-used Mike Grinnon, the last surviving member of the national championship team.

In a moment reminiscent of Billy Hahn being pressed into duty in the 1974 ACC championship game vs. NC State, Duke wisely sent Grinnon to the line with Maryland leading 85-82 and only 1:15 remaining in overtime. Grinnon smoothly sank both free throws and, following a layup by Duhon, Jones added two more. Duhon cut Maryland's lead to 89-87 on a three-point play with 38 seconds left, but the Terps closed out the game by making 6-8 free throws and shutting the Blue Devils out.

Maryland never backed down from Duke today. The Terps got out of the gate quickly, jumping out to a 13-6 lead and stretched it out to 27-16. The Blue Devils, as they tend to do, came back with an 11-2 run and later tied the game at 34-34, but Maryland took a 38-36 lead in at halftime.

Duke quickly jumped ahead after halftime and gradually built their lead up to 12 points, but that just set the stage for another stirring comeback by the Terps, the most unlikely one yet this season.

Gilchrist, who was named the tournament MVP, again led Maryland with 26 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. Jamar Smith tied his career by scoring 25 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Travis Garrison set a career high with 19 points. That's three different Terrapin players who had their career high in scoring during this tournament!

Duhon held his own against Gilchrist, leading Duke scorers with 21 points. Duhon went down in the first half chasing a loose ball and ran into some television equipment. He stayed down for several minutes, and it looked as if Coach K would have to administer last rites on the scene. Fortunately, Duhon was not seriously injured and returned to the game nursing a bruised rib. I can't imagine what he would have been like if it had been something like a blown out knee.

Luol Deng scored 14 and grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds. Daniel Ewing scored 19, and Redick scored 16 points, but made only 6-17 shots including 1-8 from beyond the three-point arc. Shelden Williams chipped in 11 points and 12 rebounds, but played only 23 minutes due to foul trouble.

Maryland's biggest advantage today was from the foul line. The Terps made 32-44 (72.7%) while the Blue Devils made only 16-31 (51.6%). One of the favorite statistics experts love to point about Duke's success is the fact that they usually make more free throws than their opponents attempt. Maryland turned the tables on them in that area today. Terrapin fans have loudly expressed their frustration about officiating in Terps-Devils games, but overall Duke received no apparent advantage from the guys in the striped shirts. It was not a particularly well officiated game, but the calls (or no-calls) balanced out.

The announcers were talking about how “un-Duke-like” the Blue Devils played during this game. What also happened is that the Terps played quite “Maryland-like.” The Terps attacked their opponents all weekend and, as coach Williams said, “We played with a lot of confidence, and that came gradually throughout the year.”

Williams said that the Terps' five game winning streak (four wins over ranked teams) is “possibly as good a run as any team I've ever coached.” Does he feel like there are any limits on what his team can accomplish the rest of the season? “You sure don't feel like it right now.” Williams replied.

Coach K was very gracious in defeat. He said, “Maryland needs to be congratulated. What amazing heart those kids showed throughout the weekend. They never allowed themselves to get beat.” He shared a moment with Williams in the post-game handshake, something that is usually measured in nano-seconds when those two coaches square off. Duke fans may have a harder time next year denying that there is still an intense rivalry between their Devils and the Terps.

The newly crowned ACC champions returned home to Comcast Center about 7:30 PM and were greeted by hundreds of students at a brief pep rally. Thousands of students took over Route 1 in front of the College Park campus when the game ended, but police in riot gear were on the scene and kept incidents to a minimum.

Maryland will open NCAA tournament action on Thursday in Denver, where they face the #13 seed (and lowest ranked at-large team) Texas El-Paso in the Phoenix bracket. There are no East, West, Southeast, or West designations this year. A first round win could set up a second round contest featuring the last two national champions, as the Terps would play the winner of Syracuse-BYU. I'll have more on the brackets later in the week.

Notes From Under the Shell
I must start this section with a personal note. About a month ago, when the Terps were deep into their mid-ACC season funk, I had a discussion with my wife about their dwindling chances of receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. She told me, rather matter-of-factly, that it wouldn't matter because they were going to win the ACC tournament. After asking her to repeat herself, I laughed. Needless to say, she is enjoying the last laugh today, and I am enjoying it with her. The lesson here is that husbands should always, always listen to their wives.

Jamar Smith joined Gilchrist on the all-tournament team along with Duke's Shelden Williams, Chris Duhon, and Daniel Ewing. Travis Garrison made the second team.

Seven of the players on Maryland's roster-Will Bowers, Travis Garrison, John Gilchrist, Ekene Ibekwe, Mike Jones, Chris McCray, and D. J. Strawberry, had not yet been born when the Terps won their last ACC championship, also over Duke, on March 11, 1984.

Today was only the second ACC championship game appearance for Maryland under Gary Williams. They lost to Duke in 2000. Lefty Driesell lost five of six title games as Terps coach, and Bud Millikan won his only appearance in 1958.

Two ACC tournament anniversaries were celebrated this week. It was 30 years ago that Maryland lost to NC State in the epic 103-100 OT championship game, and 20 years since they won their last title. Add another milestone to commemorate in ten years-the Cinderella Terps.

Maryland is now 2-1 vs. Duke in ACC title games. They defeated the Blue Devils in 1984, Coach K's first NCAA tournament team. In 1980, the #1 seed Terps lost to #6 Duke 73-72 in the game that, despite Mike Gminski's comments to the contrary, Kenny Dennard undercut Buck Williams with no foul call on the final play of the game.

Maryland ended Duke's string of five consecutive ACC championships and victories in 17 consecutive tournament games.

Gary Williams now joins Coach K as the only current ACC head coaches that have won the conference tournament. He is also the only current coach who also played in the tournament.

Congratulations to the Terrapin women, who also earned an NCAA bid today. They are a #12 seed and will play #5 seed Miami (FL) next Sunday on the LSU campus. The women return to the NCAA tournament after missing the last two.


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