- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

Call it the NCAA tournament’s other play-in game.

Maryland and Virginia close their regular seasons tonight at Comcast Center in a game where the winner is expected to earn a berth in March Madness. The loser’s NCAA hopes will be severely diminished, but its prospects for an NIT berth will get brighter.

“We feel we have to win,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “I am sure Virginia does, too.”

The Terrapins had hoped to lock up an 11th consecutive NCAA bid long before tonight, while the suddenly surging Cavaliers are thrilled to be just one victory away. The consensus is that seven wins in the ACC — rated as the nation’s top conference — will earn an NCAA trip. Both the Terps and Cavaliers have 6-9 league records.

“We look at it as motivation,” said Maryland point guard John Gilchrist, who had 26 points in the Terps’ 71-67 win Feb.4 in Charlottesville. “We want to uphold [Maryland’s NCAA tournament] tradition and not have a letdown. You can’t play not to lose — you have to play to win.”

The Terps (15-11 overall) broke a three-game losing streak with a stunning 70-69 upset at 16th-ranked N.C. State on Wednesday. The victory revived Maryland’s slipping NCAA hopes.

Maryland has a 3-4 record in conference home games, while Virginia is 1-6 in road league contests. However, the Cavaliers have won four of five, with three home victories against ranked teams and won their last away game at Clemson.

With a loss, the Terps still would have a small hope for an NCAA at-large berth, based on their RPI ranking of 31 and having the nation’s third most difficult schedule. However, their NCAA chances would rest on their showing in the ACC tournament and the whims of the NCAA tournament committee. Florida State in 1998 is the only ACC team to make the tournament with a 6-10 record

Maryland did receive good news yesterday. It will avoid the ACC’s play-in game and will be either the No.6 seed in this week’s conference tournament with a win or No.7 if it loses. That happened because N.C. State beat Wake Forest yesterday to secure second place in the conference.

If the Terps lose today and finish 6-10 and in a tie for seventh with Florida State, the conference tiebreaker system gives them the nod over the Seminoles. The Terps would avoid the play-in game because they have a win over the league’s second-place finisher, N.C. State, while the Seminoles’ best victory was over third-place Duke.

With a win today, Virginia would be alone in sixth place at 7-9, but a loss would relegate the Cavaliers to the play-in game because Florida State would win that tiebreaker between 6-10 teams.

Virginia (16-10 overall) would most likely be eliminated for NCAA consideration with a defeat, leaving the Cavaliers’ only route to the NCAAs an ACC tournament title. The Cavaliers lost eight of their first 10 conference games but recent success has made them NCAA contenders and likely saved coach Pete Gillen’s job.

“We’re beating great teams, and our heart and determination have been the determining factor,” said Gillen, who has led the Cavaliers to one NCAA tournament (2001) in five seasons.

For the Cavaliers, forward Devin Smith, who often misses practice with back injuries, provided the game-winning 3-point play with 5.8 seconds remaining in an 84-82 upset of No.11 Wake Forest last week. Todd Billet supplied final-minute, go-ahead 3-pointers in the three previous wins against No.19 Georgia Tech, Clemson and No.14 North Carolina.

Freshman guard T.J. Bannister had a season-high 12 assists against Wake Forest, while 6-foot-9 center Elton Brown (15.0 points, 6.3 rebounds) is one of the ACC’s top post players.

“People talk about their 3-point shooters, but the main thing they bring to the table is rebounding,” said Gilchrist, whose team limited N.C. State to four offensive rebounds. “They are not that big, but the smaller guys get the longer rebounds because they crash the boards so hard.”

The Terps hope center Jamar Smith, who broke out of his personal slump with a 16-point, eight-rebound performance against the Wolfpack, will help neutralize Brown. The 6-8 Smith fouled out after playing 17 minutes and recording six points and one rebound in the first meeting with Virginia.

“I feel like I am re-energized,” said Smith, a senior who will play his final home game.

Maryland plans to build on its big win at N.C. State on its way back to the NCAA tournament. Virginia hopes to pull off a rare road win on its way to the Big Dance. The regular-season finale should decide both programs’ postseason destinies.

“It’s going to be very crucial to both our teams,” Gilchrist said. “It is going to be a heck of a game.”

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