- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As an 18-point lead gradually slipped away, senior forward Nik Caner-Medley implored his Maryland teammates to worry about the opportunity still in front of them.

The Terrapins heeded his advice just enough to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive.

Maryland parlayed Mike Jones’ late 3-pointer and lockdown defense in the final minute to escape with a 71-70 victory over Virginia, ruining the Cavaliers’ final scheduled game at 41-year-old University Hall.

“When they started coming back, it was the most vocal I’d ever been in the huddle and on the bench, making sure that everybody knew that you just have to understand the situation,” Caner-Medley said. “You have to realize they came back, but it’s still tied. It’s still four minutes [left] and who’s going to win this last four minutes.”

The Terps (18-11, 8-8 ACC) earned the No. 6 seed for this week’s ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and will meet 11th-seeded Georgia Tech (11-16, 4-12) on Thursday. Maryland also won on the road for the second time this season.

“[With] everything that’s gone on this year, you have to put it out there in that situation,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “We had to get through some tough things this year, stay tough, and we did.”

J.R. Reynolds scored 30 points for the Cavaliers (14-13, 7-9), who lost their third straight and head to Greensboro as the No. 7 seed.

Virginia took a 70-68 lead on two Reynolds free throws with 2:09 left but struggled the rest of the way. Caner-Medley grabbed the rebound of Sean Singletary’s missed jumper and passed to D.J. Strawberry, who found Jones in the left corner.

“In that situation, you’re wide open and you have to make it,” Jones said of his 3-pointer with 1:12 left.

From there, the Terps relied on defense. James Gist swatted Singletary’s shot out of bounds with 55 seconds left. After a Virginia timeout, Singletary tried to get the ball in and appeared to call another timeout. Referee Karl Hess didn’t notice, instead whistling the Cavaliers for a five-second violation.

Strawberry was then called for a charge, a foul that thwarted the Terps’ chance to add to the lead. The Cavaliers called timeout after getting the ball across halfcourt, leaving Maryland time to ponder the significance of the final 25 seconds.

“The last possession, I said ‘Guys, this is one possession right here with our season on the line. Are we going to get a stop?’” said Caner-Medley, who led Maryland with 16 points. “Guys responded to that.”

Reynolds got a look on the perimeter, but Ekene Ibekwe and Sterling Ledbetter converged on him quickly. Reynolds managed only an off-balance shot that missed badly, prompting Williams to raise his arms in triumph before shouting at an official as they passed each other on the floor.

The Terps struggled with perimeter defense for much of the year, but have improved that facet during their first two-game winning streak since late January. Both Miami and Virginia made only seven 3-pointers against the Terps, and the similarity of the teams’ styles probably helped Maryland yesterday.

“Miami’s got good guards and Virginia’s really based on their three guards, so I think that was a real good warmup going against Miami coming in here,” Ledbetter said.

Virginia nearly pulled off the comeback, sending U-Hall into a final frenzy as it sliced away at a 52-34 deficit even though Singletary was stuck on the bench with four fouls.

Maryland kept its lead in double figures until Reynolds sandwiched two 3-pointers around Billy Campbell’s 3. Reynolds’ drive to the basket tied it at 62-62 with 5:55 left.

“It’s hard if you’re a player to understand that the next possession is all you can control,” Williams said. “They make a shot, we miss, they make and all of the sudden it’s a 12-point game and in your mind you’re thinking something’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong if you stop them on the next possession and that’s the biggest thing.”

The Terps stopped Virginia enough to finish .500 in the conference, a milestone that historically is a favorable postseason bellwether. Only six ACC teams have finished with a .500 record in league play and missed the NCAA tournament since the field was expanded to 48 in 1980.

Still, the Terps have work to do. They entered yesterday with an RPI of 54 and possess no victories against top-50 teams since guard Chris McCray was declared academically ineligible Jan. 23. A strength of schedule ranked No. 11 by collegerpi.com and the opportunity to pick up a few solid wins next weekend, though, gives them some hope for an NCAA tournament berth.

“With everything that’s gone on and the political nature of things right now, you have to work hard in the ACC tournament,” Williams said. “I don’t think you can get away with a poor showing. I don’t think necessarily you have to win, but you can’t have a poor showing.”

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