- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. Unexpected contributors have helped put Maryland atop the ACC basketball standings.

Guard John Gilchrist and forward Jamar Smith paced a 14-2 second-half surge that finished off North Carolina 81-66 Wednesday night. Forward Calvin McCall is a starter with a knack for snatching loose balls after three seasons of limited playing time. Guard Chris McCray creates turnovers.

No.12 Maryland (11-4, 4-1) is still led by senior guards Drew Nicholas and Steve Blake and senior center Ryan Randle as it prepares for tomorrow's game at Clemson. However, the Terrapins' surge to first place after beating Duke and North Carolina within five days was aided by a 10-deep roster that maintains the pace regardless of who is playing.

Maryland lacks the starpower provided last season by All-Americans Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter. Instead, the Terps have seen veterans and newcomers complementing one another to prevent opponents from focusing on one part of the offense.

"The difference in our team this year is, we don't know how we're going to be good each game somebody has to step up," coach Gary Williams said. "It's a lot of fun because it really challenges you to try to get that right combination out there at the right time."

Williams started five seniors against Duke on Saturday because he feared the young players couldn't instantly produce against the nation's No.1 team. But against North Carolina, Gilchrist's two quick layups and two free throws after the Tar Heels had closed within two points, plus Smith's two baskets underneath, showed that the Terps don't need leading scorer Nicholas (18.4) to counter opposing comebacks. Gilchrist even chest-bumped Williams after returning to the bench.

Still, opponents regularly note the 456 career games by Maryland's starters as a major asset in a league largely devoid of experience. After all, five players return from last season's national champions, and midseason games can't match the drama they've faced. Blake sank six straight free throws in the final two minutes against North Carolina without even taking a long breath.

"That's one of the perks of having five seniors," forward Tahj Holden said. "We've been in situations before where teams took their best shots at us."

Against North Carolina, the Terps finally showed they can play well away from Comcast Center, where they're 9-1. Maryland's victory was its first on an opponent's floor this season, and the raucous crowd failed to unnerve the Terps when Maryland's second-half lead shrank to two points.

"This is a crazy place to play in, and we handled it well," Randle said. "They came back to us. We stayed calm."

Maryland regularly works the ball underneath to Randle and Holden early, then kicks it outside to Nicholas and Blake when opponents sag underneath. Randle (14 points, 8.4 rebounds) has been one of the mainstays of the recent 7-1 streak, and Nicholas' 21-point average against ACC teams is nearly three points higher than his overall average.

"You have to have a good inside game," Randle said. "Once you get your big men happy, you can do anything. When we really needed the points [against North Carolina], we went inside."

That inside-outside attack benefits not only Randle and Nicholas but opens others for uncontested shots.

"It shouldn't always be Drew that scores to make us a good offensive team," Williams said. "We should get points from everybody. Drew realizes the ball has to go inside to really help him. If we can't get the ball inside, it's really easy to take away perimeter players."

Maryland begins a three-game homestand after visiting Clemson (11-3, 1-3). N.C. State (10-4, 3-1) arrives Thursday, hot off its 80-71 upset of Duke Wednesday. The Wolfpack is in second place. That is followed by games against Loyola and Virginia.

The Terps' recent improvement after a 4-3 start has players wondering whether they can peak during March Madness.

"We're capable of putting together very good games and beating great teams," Nicholas said. "We're still finding ourselves right now. We're going in the right direction."

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