- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

They were dead after losing at home to Wake Forest 18 days ago, saddled with their fourth loss in five games that left them with a 14-11 record.

There was nothing to discuss. There was only a sense of resignation about them and next season to consider.

The ubiquitous bubble of February was a distant dream for the Terps, a courtesy, really, that was afforded them because of their tradition.

No, the Terps were not going anywhere, except possibly to the NIT, and even the We’re No.66 Tournament has certain requirements that the team was in jeopardy of not satisfying.

Fifteen days after the Wake Forest game, in Greensboro, N.C., the Terps completed one of the astounding recoveries of their storied history, claiming their first ACC championship in 20 years that guaranteed their 11th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Gary Williams, who coaches in a puddle of sweat, in a wrinkled suit that reveals his turbulent nature, conceded the obvious in the afterglow of the overtime victory against Duke.

“I didn’t expect [an ACC championship] this year, to be honest,” he said.

No one expected the Terps to last beyond the first round in Greensboro. There were too many nationally ranked opponents in their path. The Terps were too young, their weaponry on offense too inconsistent. They were up against an opposition that feasts on the uncertain and reckless.

But there is a certain renewal to college basketball each March, when teams have the chance to atone, in the grandest of ways, for all that went wrong in the season.

The reversal of the Terps was somewhat reminiscent of their trek to the Final Four three seasons ago. That team, like this one, was considered out of it, notably after losing at home to Florida State in mid-February.

So mired was that team in the quicksand of a season slipping away, Williams backed away from his Type-A proclivities and announced that it was time to just play ball and stop fretting the tiniest details.

The remedy worked, and the legend grew, to the point that Williams eventually felt compelled to explain that he did not necessarily recognize the softer, gentler soul being portrayed in the fawning articles attesting to his genius.

Williams was still as pugnacious and obsessive as ever, true to his core, just smart enough to go easier around the tumult lurking inside the head of a 21-year-old dreamer.

Of course, this team more than that one orchestrated its about-face under starker circumstances, in the mouth of the abyss.

The Terps were down by 21 points to N.C. State in the first half of the ACC semifinals before John Gilchrist put his fingerprints on the game and spared his teammates from an anxious time awaiting word from the selection committee.

Now the Terps are off to Denver and a meeting with the UTEP Miners, in a tournament that is destined to be both quirky and scintillating, fraught with last-second shots and instant stars.

The Terps have as much right as most of the entrants to think that they, finally, are where they want to be in the season, in the proper emotional state to forge a peace with an endeavor that for so long taunted their unity of purpose.

The tournament is more open to the fragile than it ever has been because of the increasing rush of the young to be in the NBA. The rush has led to the championship relevance of Saint Joseph’s and Gonzaga and granted the slowly evolving Terps a measure of genuine hope.

The Terps have a hot player in Gilchrist and a feeling they are all grown up after piecing together a season-saving, five-game winning streak.

They have been tested in the most strenuous fashion possible, and they know what awaits them in Denver is considerably less daunting, starting with UTEP.

In what promises to be the tightest tournament ever, the Terps have another Sweet 16 appearance in them.

Eighteen days ago, that notion was as absurd as the Terps being granted a perch on the so-called bubble.

They were as dead as it gets after 25 games, and now they are ridiculously poised to move forward.

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