- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

DENVER — As the Maryland Terrapins took the Pepsi Center court for yesterday’s final shoot-around before today’s NCAA tournament first-round game against Texas-El Paso, it was fitting that John Gilchrist led them out.

The sophomore point guard was the driving force as Maryland went from likely missing the tournament to being ACC champion in a remarkable two-week turnaround. His transformation from a shoot-first guard to an all-around point guard capable of running a team enabled the Terps to shock most observers.

Now for Maryland, a fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and a third Final Four in four seasons is not unimaginable

“I feel like we can go all the way, based on our chemistry and the way we know we are able to play,” said Gilchrist, the ACC tournament MVP after averaging 24 points and 6.3 assists in three victories over ranked opponents last weekend.

The 19th-ranked Terps (19-11) are the fourth seed in the Phoenix regional as they open against the 13th-seeded Miners (24-7). Maryland received good news yesterday as freshman D.J. Strawberry practiced and should play after spraining his ankle last week. The UTEP-Maryland winner will meet the Syracuse-BYU survivor Saturday for a berth in the Sweet 16.

The Terps’ cheery outlook is no surprise considering the season-high five-game winning streak and 95-87 victory over Duke that gave Maryland its first ACC title since 1984. One night after scoring a career-high 30 points against N.C. State, Gilchrist had 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the overtime title game.

“He’s our leader,” shooting guard Chris McCray said. “He’s a true point guard. He just can take over.”

Said assistant coach Dave Dickerson: “He had to learn how to run the offense first and then look for his shot. Those are things that finally came together for him the last two weeks of the year. … He started to not only have big games but got people involved and helped the team in more ways than one to win.”

The change might have begun following an 81-71 loss at Georgia Tech on Jan.17, when Gilchrist scored a then-career-high 27 points but had only one assist. The point guard had a hollow feeling after the defeat and knew he needed to change his mindset.

“We got to the point where I didn’t care if I score or whatever,” Gilchrist said. “It is just about if we win. You start to see the guys who are getting the recognition, like [Duke’s] Chris Duhon and all those guys, they will score two points in a game and you will hear about how great they are because they made their team win.”

The change did not come easily or quickly.

Gilchrist had to redefine his game and change his thought processes. A drive into the lane used to automatically mean a shot. Now he can draw the defense and dish off or pull up for one of his patented 10-footers if defenders stay back. Lately, the focus has been getting the ball to the post, and Maryland has a potent inside-outside attack with center Jamar Smith.

In Maryland’s ACC quarterfinal win over Wake Forest, the 6-foot-2 guard controlled the game with 16 points while delivering six assists. The next day, he had seven assists while guiding the Terps back from a 21-point first-half deficit to an improbable win over N.C. State.

“Obviously the scoring is great and all that, but his leadership role has really improved as the season went on, and it made our team better,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “We look at John and know he is going to shoot when he’s open, but at the same time, he wants the ball to go to Jamar. … When you are the point guard, you can be a leader that way just by where you go with the ball.”

Meanwhile, the players around Gilchrist have improved and gained confidence. Smith has become a dominant inside force. Travis Garrison and McCray have become steady contributors.

“Sometimes you have to trust your teammates,” Gilchrist said.

The physical point guard has grown up off the court too. After winning three state championships at Salem (Va.) High School, he was confronted by mounting losses this season as a sophomore. After 25 games, the Terps were 14-11 and in jeopardy of not reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993.

“I felt ashamed,” said Gilchrist, whose team lost seven straight to ranked opponents before upsetting N.C. State on March3. “I stayed in my room. I went from class to practice. I didn’t even want to go into the cafeteria, to tell you the truth. Sometimes it is hard to walk around with you head up high when you are on a team that is not really representing like it is supposed to be.”

That was a mere two weeks ago. Now Gilchrist is now his old gregarious self, complete with chest pumping and waving his arms in celebration. And the team is feeding off its fiery leader. The point guard has been outplaying some of the nation’s best point guards, including Duhon, and Terps feel they are primed for another deep tournament run.

“We can go as far as we want to,” McCray said. “We beat Wake Forest, Duke and N.C. State in a three-day stretch. That is a great accomplishment, so we know we can play with anybody.”

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