- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

March Madness struck a few days early for the Maryland Terrapins.

The Terrapins’ men’s basketball team won its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in 20 years with an improbable and thrilling overtime victory over the Duke Blue Devils yesterday in Greensboro, N.C.

The Terrapins’ 95-87 win over their most bitter rival earned them a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and a first-round matchup against 13th-seeded Texas-El Paso on Thursday in Denver.

The victory capped an unlikely late-season run — Maryland beat four ranked teams in its final five games — and answered in resounding and dramatic fashion any doubts about whether a Terrapins team that floundered at midseason deserved an 11th consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament. It also marked the end of a remarkable streak: the Blue Devils’ run of five straight ACC championships.

“I’m disappointed [to be headed to Denver, which is far away] for our fans, players and parents,” Terrapins coach Gary Williams said, “but three weeks ago, we probably weren’t in the [NCAA] tournament.”

Maryland last won the ACC tournament in 1984, when coach Lefty Driesell and star Len Bias beat Duke in the title game.

After the game, Maryland students poured into the streets of College Park.

According to Prince George’s County Police, fans started a short-lived bonfire at the intersection of Knox Road and Baltimore Avenue before police moved in to disperse the crowd.

“They burned a mattress, wood pallets, tree limbs, newspaper, cardboard. Anything that was handy,” said one Prince George’s County police officer.

Freshman Tara Nathan, 18, said students stood and shouted to each other to maintain their lines as police moved in.

“We began chanting, ‘Defense, defense!’” she said.

Travis Weiss, 21, a senior from Calvert County, watched from a nearby rooftop.

“Cops were better at it this time,” he said. “They knew how to handle it. Nobody got hurt.”

Students said they look forward to the celebratory riots.

“If our football team beats Florida State, there will be more riots,” said sophomore Brett Dickstein, 20, who said that he’s rioted before and that it’s a “great way to celebrate.”

The Terrapins, considered a long shot to reach the NCAA tournament a few weeks ago, provided plenty of reasons to celebrate.

The Terrapins produced large comebacks in all three ACC tournament games, including ones of 19 points against N.C. State on Saturday and 11 against Duke yesterday.

“I never doubted this team from Day One,” said guard John Gilchrist, who was named the ACC tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “You’re going to go through ups and downs, so you’re going to have to bring it every single night. ‘For the team’ — that’s our motto.”

The Terrapins became the only local school to reach the 65-team NCAA tournament when American University lost to Lehigh 59-57 yesterday in the Patriot League championship game in Bethlehem, Pa.

American has come agonizingly close in recent seasons to earning the first NCAA tournament bid in school history. The loss yesterday, the Eagles’ third straight in the title game, was particularly tough.

“I’m proud of the guys and the effort we gave today and how we got this far,” coach Jeff Jones said. “But this is obviously very painful. We’ve been here three times in a row, and I thought we had a good shot. It would have been a big thing to get [a championship trophy] and break through.”

The NCAA tournament begins tomorrow, when Lehigh and Florida A&M; meet in a play-in game, the winner of which will face top-seeded Kentucky. Duke, Saint Joseph’s and Stanford also earned No. 1 seeds.

Maryland was one of six ACC teams to receive an NCAA bid, the most of any conference nationally. Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest also received bids.

An estimated $6 billion is wagered on the tournament, according to Las Vegas gaming officials — the vast majority of which is handled through Web sites, office pools and illegal bookmakers. The NCAA tournament ranks second only to the Super Bowl in sports-wagering interest.

“Hundreds of thousands of people who don’t bet on basketball participate in office pools and go through the brackets and put up a dollar,” said Las Vegas handicapper Kelso Sturgeon. “It’s easy to be involved, but it’s a tremendous amount of work. In the Super Bowl, you make a decision, and that’s it. I feel like I’ve wrestled a bear during the tournaments.”

Jon Siegel, Judith Person, Arlo Wagner and Sean Salai contributed to this report.

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