- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

There was no shame in Maryland’s basketball season, no reason to belabor the obvious limitations of a team stuffed with first- and second-year players.

It was a season fraught with the brain-lock maneuvers of the young. It also was a season filled with the young’s indefatigable spirit.

It was a season on the edge, right to the end, in the final seconds against Syracuse, in a two-point game, Maryland with a couple of chances to tie.

The disappointment won’t last long, as Terps coach Gary Williams noted.

“About a week from now, when I think about it, I will be really proud of this team,” Williams said after the Terps fell to the Orangemen 72-70 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “They showed great toughness all season. It is easier to be tough when you have been through it before and have some experience, but to do what they have done this season, all for the first time, I am very proud of them.”

The team’s best basketball is ahead, with the Terps losing only senior forward Jamar Smith from their 12-player roster.

The Terps are potentially a top-five team going into next season.

They have a budding All-America candidate in point guard John Gilchrist, who probably has only one more season in College Park before he feels an urge to make his exit to the NBA.

The Terps never would have advanced to the 65-team party if Gilchrist had not imposed himself on the ACC tournament and led the team to the championship.

Gilchrist is not all the way there yet, of course. He got into foul trouble against Syracuse and never found a way to inject himself into the proceedings. He still is learning how to manage his need to score against a point guard’s need to distribute the ball.

“John was a big scorer in high school, and that is his first tendency, to score,” Williams said. “But he is learning how to play the position — a tough position to learn how to play — and I think he benefited from playing behind Steve Blake last season.”

Blake, the shoot-last point guard now with the Wizards, is a rare kind in today’s dribble-happy, drive-to-the-basket game, old school to the core and once a useful teacher for someone of the mind-set of Gilchrist, who has next season to leave his legacy at Maryland and reverse the program’s descent from national champions two seasons ago.

The Terps’ neurotic exercise with the Orangemen was reflective of their 20-12 season.

The Terps could fluctuate between awful and mediocre, as they did against the Orangemen, and somehow muster up the resources to crawl back into a game. And so it was in their final performance of the season.

The Terps threatened to steal the game with conviction, their most consistent weapon in 32 games.

Imagine what an equal amount of conviction following a year’s worth of stern tests could mean to the Terps next season.

The Terps fell behind by 16 points in the second half to the Orangemen before they showed a modicum of skill and brain activity. By then, the hole was formidable, the Terps down to a prayer, although a prayer almost answered.

Jim Boeheim, the toothache with two legs, was his usual prickly self afterward.

He is the self-indulgent professor whom everyone tunes out after the first sentence.

His first observation was a gem: “We were the underdog and we won.”

The Orangemen had the best player on the floor in Hakim Warrick, the best outside shooter in Gerry McNamara, and the most creative left-hander in Josh Pace.

Each time Pace drove into the three-second lane and then whirled to shoot his playground-like shot, Williams probably felt an urge to pinch himself, just to be certain he was not back on the asphalt courts of his youth in New Jersey.

The Terps return four starters next season: Travis Garrison, Nik Caner-Medley, Chris McCray and Gilchrist. They return with the hard-earned lessons of a season that culminated in a logic-defying push.

They return with the ACC crown, the program’s first in 20 years, and the respect that goes to a team that was dead after 25 games and found a way to transcend it.

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