- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

For the Maryland Terrapins, this is D (Decision)-Day.

This afternoon’s game with No.11 Wake Forest at Comcast Center most likely will determine whether Maryland will reach the NCAA tournament for an 11th consecutive season or be left home with a feeling of March Sadness.

“You live for situations like this,” said Maryland forward Travis Garrison, whose team’s win over Clemson on Tuesday ended a three-game losing streak. “It’s like crunch time. You have to win these games to make it to the tournament. We all put pressure on ourselves because Maryland has made the tournament every season since Gary [Williams] has been here.”

Actually, it only seems that way. The Terps missed the NCAAs in Williams’ first four seasons before breaking through in 1994.

Maryland still will have a small chance if it loses today but would need to pull a major upset at No.14 N.C. State on Wednesday. It appears the Terps (14-10, 5-8 ACC) need seven conference wins — which means taking two of their final three games — to earn an NCAA bid. Following the N.C. State date, Maryland closes against Virginia at home March7.

“We lost a couple on our home court,” said Terps guard Chris McCray, whose team is 3-3 in ACC games in College Park. “We have to win this game.”

The Terps have backed themselves into this dangerous situation because of their erratic season, which includes seven losses in their past 11 games. Maryland has lost six straight to ranked opponents and has not beaten a likely NCAA tournament team since Jan.14 against then-No.9 North Carolina.

Not only does the Wake Forest game have heavy NCAA implications, it will go a long way toward determining whether Maryland will be relegated to the ACC tournament’s first-round game between the league’s eighth- and ninth-place finishers. Seventh-place Maryland holds a half-game edge over Virginia. The Terps’ last “play-in” appearance was in 1993, also the last year they didn’t reach the NCAAs.

The Demon Deacons (18-6, 8-5) are hardly the team Maryland would choose to face under such circumstances. They come to College Park on a league-best five-game winning streak. Wake beat Maryland 93-85 in North Carolina Jan.29 to break a four-game losing streak and sports a fire-packing three-guard offense at times. Shooting guard Justin Gray is the league’s hottest player, averaging 23.4 points over the win streak after coming off a 31-point performance against Florida State.

Point guard Chris Paul (13.6 points, 5.6 assists) and Taron Downey (10.6 points) round out the talented backcourt. Downey comes off the bench while 6-foot-9 Jamaal Levy (10.3 points, 8.3 rebounds) starts at small forward.

“I have seen them play well when they are big or play well when they have three guards,” said Williams, who calls Paul the best freshman guard in the country. “We have got our guards. That’s the game within the game. Do we want to stay big at the three-spot [small forward] and hope we can move them? Or do we try to match their size with quickness?”

The Terps recently have developed an effective three-guard set with McCray, John Gilchrist and D.J. Strawberry. McCray, who was disciplined last game and penalized the start for a verbal confrontation with Williams on the sideline at Duke, had one of his best outings against Clemson. The sophomore finished with 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting and showed a rarely seen aggression in driving to the basket. The backcourt trio combined for 44 points, led by Gilchrist’s 19, in the 70-49 rout of the Tigers.

The added scoring is needed with two of Maryland’s inside threats in deep slumps. Nik Caner-Medley has made 11 of 38 shots and two of 15 3-pointers the past four games. The sophomore forward is coming off a scoreless, seven-turnover showing against Clemson. Center Jamar Smith, the team’s only senior, made eight of 33 shots and averaged 5.7 points the last three games.

“[Smith] has to want to really show how good he is this time of year,” said Williams, who is attempting to take offensive pressure off the frontcourt. “We need defense and rebounding from our inside game.”

And the Terps hope they have found a formula that will lead to their biggest win of the season.

“There is a sense of urgency,” Garrison said. “Everyone is amped up for this game.”

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