- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

Is it March already? These have been eight days of madness for the Maryland Terrapins, who played three overtime games, faced three ranked opponents and knocked off the nation’s No.1 team.

The Terps’ 69-68 overtime victory at top-ranked Florida on Wednesday followed a thrilling 73-67 overtime win over No.15 Wisconsin on Dec.2. In between, they lost two straight, including another overtime one-pointer.

Despite those defeats, Maryland’s status as a sleeper has been shattered: Coach Gary Williams’ young team quickly has matured into an ACC and national contender.

The Gators’ House of Horrors was a tough venue where the Terps had to prove themselves. Fans threw trash and bottles, along with the usual insults. They baited Terps freshman D.J. Strawberry — and incensed his teammates — with chants of “snort, snort, snort,” a reference to the drug problems of his father, former baseball star Darryl Strawberry.

But forward Travis Garrison stunned the crowd into silence with his game-winning 15-footer with 16.4 seconds remaining, and the Terps left the floor pointing to “Maryland” on their jerseys.

It was a display of fortitude and chemistry to counter opponents’ comebacks that the Terps had been unable to summon. Florida rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit and led in regulation and overtime. The Terps, however, didn’t melt.

Eight days earlier, they might not have been able to survive such a challenge. Now, they know they can.

“This is incredible emotionally because of what we went through the past week with those two losses [to Gonzaga and West Virginia in last weekend’s BB&T; Classic],” forward Nik Caner-Medley said. “If you can win a game like this in this hostile environment, it’s great and you have to take it as a learning experience.”

As Maryland (5-2) prepares to play host to Pepperdine (2-4) on Sunday, the Terps have learned they can rely on a core of playmakers.

Center Jamar Smith delivered his fifth double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds against the toughest opposing frontcourt the Terps have faced this season. Guard John Gilchrist’s 18 points included some dazzling drives. Caner-Medley continued his rise with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Strawberry played both backcourt positions after backup point guard Andre Collins quit the team hours earlier.

“It comes down to different games, different people are going to have to step up,” Caner-Medley said. “In the Wisconsin game, Jamar carried us, and in this game I tried to carry us. I said to myself, ‘gut check,’ and I had to start playing with heart. This team is about playing with a lot of heart.”

Maryland even discovered it doesn’t need a designated shooter late in tight games. Juan Dixon or Drew Nicholas would have taken the game-winning shot the last two years. Instead, Garrison delivered even though he had missed his previous five shots.

“I was really proud of him that he had the guts to take that shot in that situation, which sometimes guys don’t want to do,” Williams said.

The defense also proved it could offset the Terps’ streaky offense, whose only field goals over a 17-minute span came off two steals. The Terps blocked 10 shots, including the Gators’ final attempt, and held Florida to 21-for-67 shooting. Maryland survived the drought by holding Florida without a field goal for the final 4:46 of regulation.

The result was that the Gators became the third No.1 team to fall this season.

“This time of year, there’s a lot of teams that are close,” Williams said. “If you look at the top 10 from the start of the season, all those teams merited No.1. There’s a lot of tough teams out there that aren’t ranked that, on any given night, can get you. We played better than we’ve been playing, so maybe we surprised them.

“It’s tough being No.1, especially that first week you get it. You feel pretty good about it. You’ve worked your whole life to be No.1.”

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