- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

DENVER — The disappointment in the Maryland locker room after Saturday’s second-round loss to Syracuse was mixed with a strong sense of resolve as the Terrapins began thinking about a promising future.

The Terps seemed to have played themselves out of the game by falling behind by 16 to the defending national champions, only to stage another incredible rally and nearly steal a victory. It was a familiar story; the Terps had made an amazing comeback over the last few weeks to salvage a wayward season. But D.J. Strawberry’s final shot didn’t drop Saturday, and Maryland’s magical run came to an abrupt conclusion in the NCAA tournament.

“I have never had a team that has made as many comebacks in games as this team,” said coach Gary Williams, who was surprisingly upbeat following the Orangemen’s 72-70 win. “I am really proud to make it to the final 32 [teams]. Nobody is hanging their head. I know this is as hard as I have worked as a coach. I’m sure these players have worked as hard also.”

Syracuse led by seven with 29 seconds left before Maryland nearly pulled off its greatest comeback in a late-season filled with them. The loss was disappointing — though hardly dispiriting.

“We had a great chance to win this game,” said Strawberry, whose twisting layup cut the deficit to two with nine seconds left. “I am proud of my team for the way we came back like this. I can’t wait to come back next year.”

Strawberry is one of many reasons the Terps already are looking forward to the 2004-05 campaign. The freshman filled in admirably Saturday while John Gilchrist was struggling and in foul trouble. Maryland returns four starters and its top four reserves next season. Gilchrist, for one, will return as a savvy veteran capable of taking over games.

The only loss is senior center Jamar Smith, the team’s top inside threat. However, freshmen Ekene Ibekwe and Hassan Fofana made great strides this season and have the potential to make post play a major strength.

The Terps figure to be a regular in the Top 25 and a much more serious threat in next season’s NCAA tournament.

“We had our ups-and-downs,” said guard Mike Jones, another talented freshman. “We got better as the year went along. We matured more. We will definitely be a great team next year.”

Maryland (20-12) will add a blue-chip recruit in James Gist, a 6-foot-8 power forward from Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, and could add a second signee, perhaps Allegany (Md.) Community College point guard Sterling Ledbetter.

The Terps appear destined for a 12th consecutive NCAA tournament bid after this character-building season, which had them NIT-bound before they won the final two games of the regular season. Maryland then pulled off a pair of incredible rallies — coming back after being down 19 at halftime against N.C. State and down 12 with four minutes to go against Duke — to capture the program’s first ACC tournament title in 20 seasons.

“Nobody gave us much of a shot there in late February,” said Williams, whose team was 14-11 overall and 5-9 in the ACC before the late season run that earned Maryland a No.4 seed in the Phoenix regional. “I will think about that a lot the next few weeks and see where we could’ve been better. That’s how I always look at it. I won’t beat myself up too much this year. I know where we were Oct.17 and where we are today. I am proud of that. I always judge teams on whether we worked hard and got better rather than wins and losses.

“Now I feel terrible. A couple weeks from now when I get a chance to sit back a little bit, I will appreciate this season.”

Williams was upset with the lack of emotion and aggression by his team in the loss to Syracuse — particularly its passive play against the 2-3 zone — but was proud of the Terps’ ability to recover in the second half and have a chance to tie in the end. The coach believes that determination and this season’s invaluable experience will pay dividends next season.

“A lot of teams would quit in those situations,” said Williams, who has won at least 20 games for eight straight seasons. “We were down 20 to N.C. State. How many teams would have won that? We’re down 14 in the second half to [Syracuse], a team that had four guys who were on the floor in the national championship game. We thought we were going to win.”

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