- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

NEW YORK — Gary Williams glared down at the stat sheet before addressing the media Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. The Maryland coach took a minute to digest the final piece of visual evidence in a year of unfulfilled promise.

The Terrapins left the famous arena wearing sober faces and asking what went wrong in what was a dreadful season by their standards. A proud program that won a national championship three seasons ago failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years and frequently produced mediocre results.

South Carolina clearly outworked the Terps for a 75-67 victory in an NIT semifinal that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Maryland was ranked as high as No. 12 this season before unraveling, losing to Clemson three times and ending with an unemotional effort in the second-class tournament.

“We assumed because we won the ACC tournament last year that there would automatically be a place [among the elite] for us this year,” said Williams, whose Terps finished 19-13, falling short of 20 wins for the first time in nine years. “We have to get [physically] stronger. I thought we got beat up pretty good going for loose balls [against South Carolina]. We have to shoot the ball better. We have to handle the ball better. We can’t have 21 turnovers.”

Williams will turn his attention in the offseason to returning Maryland to its usual lofty perch. The first order of business is the status of point guard John Gilchrist, a junior who has stated his intentions of entering the NBA Draft. He sat on the bench in street clothes for the four NIT games, listed with a sprained ankle and wrist.

However, the Terps seemed to have no interest in playing the 2004 ACC tournament MVP, regardless of his injuries. There was friction between Gilchrist and the team as well as between the player and his coach. Williams would not say whether Gilchrist is welcome to return.

“It wasn’t smooth with John Gilchrist,” Williams said. “There were a lot of distractions. That doesn’t help. I heard through media reports he wants to go to draft camps. We will sit down and discuss it in the next few days.”

Sterling Ledbetter started the four games in Gilchrist’s absence. The junior was competent in the three wins over lower-caliber competition at Comcast Center but was flustered by South Carolina’s pressure and finished with six turnovers and one assist Tuesday.

“We had some guys not get where they belonged against the pressure,” Williams said. “He made some mistakes, but every point guard is going to make mistakes. You can’t put that on Sterling.”

The NIT loss was a microcosm of the season. The Terps squandered an early lead as the Gamecocks won loose balls, grabbed offensive rebounds and routinely beat Maryland downcourt for easy baskets. South Carolina used a 32-13 run late in the half to take a 14-point lead and built it to 18 before the Terps tried to mount a rally.

“We have to focus,” said shooting guard Chris McCray, who was perhaps the Terps’ most consistent player this season. “Don’t talk back [to Williams]. Whatever he says, you just have to do. All of us had rocky seasons. There wasn’t a stable guy that was good all season.”

The Terps’ erratic season included the Clemson debacles, two losses to N.C. State and a startling two-game sweep of Duke. Maryland had hoped to build on its ACC tournament title of last season with everyone but Jamar Smith returning from that team. All of this season’s key players are expected to return next year with the likely exception of Gilchrist.

“We just have to learn from our mistakes,” forward Travis Garrison said. “We have been going through it the whole year. The sad thing about it is we can’t do anything about it now because the season’s over. We just have to live with it.”

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