- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

DENVER. — This was not how it was supposed to be in the final minutes yesterday, with the game tied at 72, then 78, then 81, with Gary Williams in a lather and Maryland looking uneasy against UTEP.

Williams was barking at anyone in his vicinity: the assistant coaches, the players, the referees, anyone with an ear.

You almost can die in moments like this, especially if your team was up by 11 points with 10 minutes left and this first-round game in the NCAA tournament was yours.

It was there the Terps succumbed to a nasty funk, missing shots, committing turnovers, acting their tender years again, and what seemed certain became in doubt.

This is how it often is in March, when a No.4 seed from the ACC finds itself being challenged by the No.13 seed from the WAC. This was one of the elite programs of an elite conference trying to hold off a team that was 6-24 last season.

Jamar Smith converted a free throw to make it 82-81 in favor of the Terps with 1:36 left. Then Omar Thomas lost the ball for UTEP, and the Terps received the first of two beneficial calls from the referees after Thomas was cited for a blocking foul that sent D.J. Strawberry to the free throw line.

In another game, in a different venue, with different referees, Strawberry might have received a player-control foul and UTEP might have had one last opportunity to deliver the game-turning blow on the Terps.

This time, though, the call went to Strawberry, who canned both free throws. Moments later, Thomas did likewise for UTEP to keep it a one-point game with 35 seconds left.

As the seconds ticked away, the Terps up one, Jason Williams rushed to Chris McCray and placed his mitts on the ball, seemingly on the verge of prying it free until the whistle blew. The obligatory foul was called because of the situation, only maybe it was no foul.

“It definitely was a close call,” McCray said. “I’m just glad the call went our way.”

As Williams pointed out, the possession arrow was pointed in the direction of the Terps, the ball theirs in the event of a tie-up, if a tie-up had ensued before the whistle sounded.

McCray’s grasp on the ball seemed tenuous, open to interpretation, not unlike the previous questionable call that helped the Terps avert a date with despair.

McCray hit both free throws, no sure development with the Terps, leaving the Miners one last chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer.

Chris Craig wound up with the ball and a quick look, only to be thwarted by the long arm of Smith. The ball collapsed a few feet short of the basket, followed by a scramble and a hurried heave from Craig that did not rise to the level of a prayer. Game over.

Craig slumped to the floor in resignation, as players do in March, when it ends in a loss for 64 of the 65 teams in the tournament.

“If a couple of plays go our way, we easily could have won it,” UTEP forward Roy Smallwood said.

The Terps flirted with defeat in the worst possible manner, as is their proclivity, squandering a comfortable lead and a chance to put the game away.

“Playing with a lead requires a lot of experience, and we’re just not as savvy a team as we have been the last three seasons,” Williams said.

Yet Williams is finding something special in John Gilchrist, the sophomore point guard who held a coming-out party in the ACC tournament.

With the Terps looking lost during certain sequences in the final minutes, Gilchrist pulled his team back from the ledge with a 3-pointer and 3-point play in a 28-second span. He made perhaps the two most significant plays of the game after enduring a nondescript first half, with two field goals in eight attempts.

As the best ones are apt to do, Gilchrist left his first 20 minutes in the locker room and finished with a box-filling performance: 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals in 38 minutes.

And the Terps, pretty or not, survived to play another day.

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