- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

ATLANTA | Hundreds and thousands of miles away, as Maryland completed its morning walkthroughs the past two days, basketball teams across the land had the opportunity to leave a lasting impression at the end of their seasons.

Most bombed, often in spectacular fashion.

The Terrapins have not - and an NCAA tournament berth could be their reward after a 75-64 upset of Wake Forest in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Friday provided an emphatic shred of evidence at an ideal juncture of the schedule.

“This time of year, you have to step up if you want to make a statement,” senior forward Dave Neal said. “We knew we had a chance to make a run, and we came out with a positive mindset that we were going make a run to the championship. Right now we’re showing people we’re a good team. No matter what they say, they can’t talk bad about us being a horrible team.”

Instead, the Terps (20-12) will meet third-seeded Duke in Saturday’s 4 p.m. semifinal at Georgia Dome less than a day after solidifying their postseason credentials.

Greivis Vasquez scored 22 points for Maryland, which reached the ACC semifinals for the first time since winning the event for the only time so far under coach Gary Williams in 2004.

The Terps already had defeats of North Carolina and Michigan State, the latter on a neutral court. But it was going to take something huge against equally gargantuan Wake Forest (24-6) for Maryland to enhance its resume.

Rather than acting like the timid Terps who failed to attack the basket in the teams’ first meeting March 3, Maryland made it a priority to slice against Wake Forest. James Johnson’s first-half foul woes helped - the forward, who scored 20 points, committed three fouls in the first 10 minutes - yet it was clear the Terps would not be flustered even when Wake shifted to a 1-3-1 zone.

“Take the ball to the basket and get fouls - that was a big thing we talked about,” said forward Landon Milbourne, who had eight points and 11 rebounds. “We only shot two free throws the last time we played them, and we only lost by two points. We’re a real good free throw shooting team, and we have to use that to our advantage.”

It was another adaptation for a team that has made the most of its unconventional lineup and grinding style. The Terps were expected to finish in the bottom half of the league - and complied with a 7-9 conference record to earn the No. 7 seed and little margin for error this week.

Maybe there was a little against Wake Forest, which summoned a few rim-rocking dunks but never a consistent offense. The Demon Deacons shot 3-for-25 from beyond the 3-point line and somehow got outrebounded against a far-smaller opponent.

It was as if the Terps had morphed into a rugged, rough-and-tumble entity that hadn’t existed 10 days earlier.

“You never stay the same during the season,” Williams said. “You either get better or you get worse. These guys have done a good job of getting better.”

So it has been since the beginning of the season. An experience littered with sparkling highs added another memorable moment Friday night, their number growing in the past month to help counteract a few miserable nights when the Terps could barely function.

That version of Maryland made a cameo appearance for 10 minutes in Thursday’s tournament opener against N.C. State but since then has been locked away in a place far from opponents’ (and the NCAA selection committee’s) prying eyes.

Maybe it’s the second look; Maryland improved to 5-2 in its second game against an opponent this season. That’s evidence that a bunch with some admitted limitations can still adjust to the circumstances - both during games and amid the tumult that has visited the program this season.

“This is good because this team just showed a lot of maturity with a lot of things that were going on outside the basketball court from the beginning of the season until now,” Milbourne said. “People were writing us off, saying we weren’t going to be a good team and we weren’t going to have a good record. We never listened to any of that stuff and just came in every day and got better, and we’re here now.”

“Here” is the precipice of the NCAA tournament. Williams, who had T-shirts made earlier in the week to emphasize the importance of winning two games, can make a valid case for an at-large invitation after upending the Demon Deacons.

A victory Saturday should end the debate - and would come closer to satisfying the Terps’ revamped goal of doubling up their coach’s initial plea.

“It means a lot,” guard Cliff Tucker said. “Now that we’ve won these two games, we’re trying to win the whole thing.”

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