- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

GREENSBORO, N.C. — It is only fitting Maryland will open the NCAA tournament in Denver. After the ACC tournament final yesterday, the Terrapins felt like they already were a mile high.

The Terps completed a spectacular three-day run to capture their first ACC tournament title in 20 years with a 95-87 overtime victory over top-seeded Duke at Greensboro Coliseum. John Gilchrist, the tournament MVP, scored 26 points as Maryland erased a 12-point deficit in the final three and half minutes of regulation and pulled away by making its free throws in overtime.

The ACC title gave Maryland an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament — the Terps are the fourth seed in the Phoenix regional after being on the NCAA bubble as recently as last week — and provided the program with only its third ACC title in the tournament’s 52-year history.

“This is special,” coach Gary Williams said after the Terps cut down the nets to the delight of some 5,000 Maryland supporters. “I kept wondering why we kept coming down here [to the tournament] and not playing well. I would say the last 10 years we have had some pretty good teams. I didn’t expect it this year.”

Williams had not won a conference tournament in 25 seasons as a coach and called it one of his biggest wins — perhaps second only to the 2002 national title game — since he returned to College Park in 1989.

The Terps (19-11) will face No.13 Texas-El Paso in a first-round game at 12:40 p.m. Thursday in Denver.

“I wasn’t surprised at all [by our seed],” said Williams, who now has taken Maryland to 11 consecutive NCAA tournaments. “We deserve to be a four seed.”

The tournament committee set up a possible second-round matchup between the last two national champions. If Maryland beats the Miners, an at-large team from the Western Athletic Conference, it will meet the winner between defending champion Syracuse and BYU. The regional semifinals and finals will be held March 25-27 in Phoenix.

The Terps got the favorable NCAA spot by sweeping the top three seeds in the ACC tournament — all ranked teams — in three days, thereby snapping the top-seeded Blue Devils’ record run of five consecutive titles. Maryland has won a season-high five consecutive games, including four against ranked teams.

Gilchrist, who scored 69 points in the three games, added seven rebounds and six assists yesterday to control the game. Terps center Jamar Smith matched his career high with 25 points, had 12 rebounds and four assists and helped foul out three Duke post players.

Still, the Terps had some unlikely heroes at the end of regulation and in overtime. Freshman Mike Jones and seldom-used forward Mike Grinnon both played important minutes because Nik Caner-Medley and Chris McCray fouled out and D.J. Strawberry sprained his ankle.

The Terps, one of the nation’s worst free throw shooting teams, made 13 of their final 16 foul shots and shot 70 percent for the game.

For the second day in a row, Maryland was forced to rally in the second half. On Saturday, the Terps made tournament history by erasing a 19-point halftime deficit to stun second-seeded N.C. State. Yesterday Maryland trailed by 12 with 3:30 left, but Duke scored only three points on its final nine possessions as the Terps forced overtime.

“I know a lot of people probably counted us out around that time,” said Smith, who was named to the all-tournament team. “We have been down 19, and we cut that lead quickly last night. I am very confident in my team. I knew what we could do.”

Williams called a timeout after J.J. Redick’s only 3-pointer in eight attempts gave Duke a 10-point lead. After Chris Duhon (21 points) shredded Maryland’s press for an easy layup to cap a 12-2 run and push the lead to 74-62 with 4:58 remaining, Williams called his final timeout.

“The timeouts were necessary not just to change strategy, but to try to put the brakes on,” Williams said.

The suddenly recharged Terps scored nine straight and closed regulation on a 15-3 run. Travis Garrison blocked Duhon’s layup to set up Nik Caner-Medley’s fastbreak layup with 3:25 showing and set the tone against the leg-weary Blue Devils (27-5). After Duhon’s free throw gave Duke a 75-71 lead, Jones answered with a 3-pointer from the left corner to cut the lead to one with 33 seconds left.

“When we thought we had the game, we made a few mistakes,” Duke forward Loul Deng said. “We should have taken better care of the ball instead of thinking the game was over and there was no way they could come back. Give credit to Maryland. They never gave up and played so hard.”

Deng hit two free throws to give Duke a three-point lead, but Gilchrist responded with the play of the tournament. The sophomore dribbled around to create space, blew past Blue Devils center Shelden Williams on the right side and made a difficult layup while being fouled. Gilchrist converted the free throw to make it 77-77 with 19 seconds remaining.

“Any time a big man is on you, you have to beat him,” Gilchrist said. “I heard them say switch. I saw Shelden Williams jump out, and I said, ‘I have to beat this guy.’ Once I turned the corner I went to the hole. I thought he was going to let me go. Once I felt the bump, I concentrated more to try to make it.”

Williams fouled out on the play, the first of four Blue Devils to do so. Redick’s 3-pointer at the buzzer missed, and the Terps rode their momentum through overtime.

After Duhon’s 3-pointer tied the game for the final time at 82-82, Maryland scored five straight to take control. Smith made one of two free throws to give the Terps the lead with 1:37 left, Daniel Ewing (16 points) missed an open 3-pointer. Garrison was fouled on the rebound and made both free throws. After a Duke turnover, Grinnon made two free throws to push the lead to 87-82 with 50 seconds left.

Duhon cut Maryland’s lead to 89-87 with 38 seconds left on a 3-point play. Gilchrist made one of two free throws. Smith converted two more free throws after a Duke turnover to make it a five-point lead against with 18 seconds left.

Soon, the Terps were celebrating an unlikely title against their biggest rivals. Duke swept the two games in the regular season, including an 86-63 romp three weeks ago in Cameron Indoor Stadium that put Maryland’s NCAA hopes in jeopardy.

“The way it happened was unbelievable,” Caner-Medley said. “We were focused on beating [third-seeded] Wake [Forest in the first round]. After we beat them, it was N.C. State. We were down by 19 [at halftime] and [thinking], ‘Let’s not get embarrassed.’ We come out and show pride for our program. We end up winning that game. We come to this game; they killed us last time we played. Let’s have a good showing and play hard and win this thing. Then we won it. It’s almost like it was meant to be.”

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