- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

DENVER — The Maryland Terrapins stood motionless on the Pepsi Center floor after Texas-El Paso’s potential game-tying shot fell well short in the final seconds. Chris Craig, who launched the desperation 3-pointer for the Miners, dropped to his knees and put his head on the floor in despair.

The Terps didn’t feel much like celebrating and didn’t feel particularly good about their 86-83 victory, but nonetheless they accomplished their goal.

“We survived,” point guard John Gilchrist said after Maryland won its NCAA tournament opener for a seventh consecutive season. “This time of year is all about winning and advancing.”

Maryland moved on despite blowing an 11-point lead in the second half and trailing 76-75 with 2:45 remaining. That’s when Gilchrist provided what is becoming his routine heroics as the Terps made five of six free throws to build a 3-point lead. But the fourth-seeded Terps couldn’t exhale until Craig missed a pair of 3-pointers on the game’s final possession.

“It has been typical of our team all year,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said of his team’s difficulties putting away opponents. “I’m not sure our players respected them enough, to tell you the truth, coming in.”

Maryland (20-12) now has won six straight to set up tomorrow’s match between the last two national champions in the second round for a trip to next week’s Phoenix regional semifinals. Defending champion and No.5 seed Syracuse beat 12th seed BYU 80-75 behind 43 points from Gerry McNamara. The Terps are seeking a fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and eighth in 11 seasons.

Chris McCray led Maryland with a game-high 19 points, including two foul shots with 13 seconds remaining. Gilchrist, who was the ACC tournament MVP last weekend, provided 18 points along with seven rebounds and five assists. Center John Tofi paced the 13th-seeded Miners with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

The Terps had to sweat out another nervous finish even if it didn’t match the dramatics of Drew Nicholas’ game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the Terps’ first-round win over UNC Wilmington last season.

Maryland seemed in control after matching its biggest lead at 70-59 on a layup by Nik Caner-Medley (12 points) with 10:03 remaining. But the Terps didn’t score for the next 4:40 while the Miners went on a 9-0 run and caught up at 72-72 on Giovanni St. Amant’s fastbreak layup with 4:04 left. The Miners were a step quicker all game and routinely beat the Terps driving down the lane to score easy baskets and draw fouls.

“We really struggled today defensively,” Williams said after UTEP shot 60 percent in the first half and 51.8 percent overall. “They did a great job picking us apart. I was proud of our players. We had to work hard to win that game. We probably worked as hard as we did last weekend [while winning the ACC tournament]. We didn’t play as well.”

Caner-Medley’s 3-pointer regained the lead for Maryland before UTEP scored four straight and took its first lead since early in the first half at 76-75 on two free throws by Omar Thomas (15 points), who was fouled while going for a transition layup. That is when Maryland called time out and Gilchrist made sure there would be no upset.

“It was definitely John’s time,” McCray said. “He had it at the ACC tournament. I think we were down one with about 2:35 to go, and he just told Coach he wanted the ball. John hit a big 3 and got the one-and-one. John just took over for us once again.

The sophomore’s 3-pointer from the right corner regained the lead for Maryland. After Tofi tied the game, Gilchrist went one-on-one, drove the lane, made an 8-foot leaner and drew the foul. The three-point play gave the Terps an 81-78 edge with 2:08 left.

Craig (14 points) tied it one final time on a 3-pointer before Jamar Smith (14 points) made one of two free throws to give Maryland the lead for good at 82-81 with 1:31 remaining. After a turnover by Thomas, the Terps’ D.J. Strawberry was trapped at midcourt, and Maryland caught a break when a foul was called.

Strawberry made both foul shots before UTEP’s Thomas made a pair of free throws to cut the Terps’ lead to 84-83 with :35 remaining. McCray’s free throws pushed the lead back to three with :13 left. Craig missed a long 3-pointer as he was tightly covered by Smith with :05 remaining, and Craig’s final attempt was well short as time expired.

“We came here to win, and we had a chance to do that,” UTEP coach Billy Gillespie said.

Maryland could have sealed the win earlier, but struggled from the foul line. The Terps made only 15 of their first 25 (60 percent) before the final two minutes. Meanwhile, UTEP cashed in on 20 of 24 (83.3 percent) to nearly end the Terps’ season.

“These guys are still learning how to play the game and how to play the situations,” Williams said. “Hopefully, each game we play like this just makes us a better team.”

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