- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

Maryland's basketball team may have regained its momentum watching television. Seeing themselves as a sixth seed on the NCAA selection show suddenly energized the No.17 Terrapins into remembering that the recent two-game losing streak didn't completely overshadow finishing second in the ACC.

"When the brackets come out, you can just look at your team and see a different body language, see an excitement that may not have been there [before]," coach Gary Williams said. "We lost our edge a little bit. There's no doubt about it, but now I think we have it back. Things change about 6:30 on Sunday night. … That supersedes any thought you have of the last couple weeks of whether you win or not."

After stumbling at season's end, Maryland will face UNC Wilmington tomorrow in its NCAA tournament opener in Nashville, Tenn. The Terps needed a last-second 3-pointer to beat N.C. State on March 2 before losing to Virginia in overtime on March 9 and North Carolina in the ACC tournament opener Friday. Maryland will have played only four games in 22 days when it takes on UNC Wilmington, an unusually slow stretch after playing four times in the preceding eight days.

The Terps seemed to have lost their rhythm and some desire knowing the last few weeks were largely meaningless. Maryland has long eyed its return to the NCAA tournament as paramount, but the defending national champions enter off two of their worst efforts this season. The frontcourt has shown little, and guard Steve Blake's shooting has been erratic.

No matter, Williams said. The Terps were upset last year in the ACC tournament semifinals and won six straight for the national crown. Williams said finishing the ACC regular season second at 11-5 makes up for entering the NCAAs on a downward slide.

"Before last year's [NCAA] tournament, we lost one," he said. "This year we lost two and we did make the NCAA tournament over the two teams that beat us [Virginia and North Carolina]. I look at the three months in the ACC as our momentum."

Certainly, Maryland can't afford to take UNC Wilmington (24-6) lightly. The Colonial Athletic Association champions have won nine straight and upset No. 22 Southern California in the opening round last year in the school's first win over a ranked team. The Terps have proven vulnerable to good 3-point shooting teams, and the Seahawks have guard Brett Blizzard (21.3 points) and forward Craig Callahan (16.6), who combined for 138 treys.

But Williams has spent the days preceding the NCAA tournament re-energizing the Terps more than worrying about the Seahawks. Maryland scrimmaged five-on-five yesterday seeking to increase its intensity before leaving for Nashville.

"There's no letdowns in the NCAA," Williams said. "Everybody's ready to play, and we are, too. That has to be there or you're not going to compete very well. We're the only team in the country walking out as the defending national champions, and that's a pretty good feeling."

Certainly, the five seniors are eager to show they weren't extras on last year's title team. They'd like a big finish to create their own legacy.

"It's always a chance to do big things," Blake said.

After 28 games, Williams said he was no longer concerned about playing four freshmen prominently. Guard John Gilchrist has played an increasing role in recent weeks, even replacing Blake at the point while Blake moved to shooting guard and leading scorer Drew Nicholas (17.7 points) to small forward in a smaller lineup. Freshman forward Nik Caner-Medley started 16 games, and freshman forward Travis Garrison recently has shown new intensity after losing his starting job at midseason. Only freshman guard Chris McCray hasn't played much lately.

Williams learned to integrate the freshmen into roles and rely more on the seniors' lead nearing the tournament.

"You have to have more patience with new players," Williams said. "You have to teach them, re-teach and re-teach until they get it. You have to understand they don't know the offense as well as our bench did last year. You throw the guys off the bench last year and there was no letup on offense and we could play any defense. We can't do that this year."

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