- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Maryland’s season won’t be made in Manhattan, but at least the Terrapins can end a sour season on a sweet note.

The Terps, who will meet South Carolina in an NIT semifinal tonight at Madison Square Garden, failed to make a 12th-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance because of a late-season free fall. Since Maryland could not get into the NCAA tournament, it wants to win the next best thing.

“The NCAA tournament was our ultimate goal, but we still have a chance to win a championship,” said Maryland guard Chris McCray, whose team has won three straight games for the first time since January. “It is fun winning games and adding wins to our record. It is always good to have another banner — no matter what it is.”

The Terps (19-12) can achieve a ninth-straight 20-win season tonight as they continue to build for next season, when all five players who will start tonight are expected to return. Point guard Sterling Ledbetter, shooting guard Mike Jones and forward James Gist have received valuable experience in the three NIT wins.

“Now we’re where we are, and you make the best out of it,” coach Gary Williams said. “That’s something I want the players to learn. That’s how it works, not just in basketball, but when you get out of here. You make the best of every situation you can.”

Tonight’s winner will meet the Memphis-Saint Joseph’s victor in Thursday’s championship.

The Gamecocks are led by Dave Odom, the former coach of Wake Forest. Odom’s team can empathize with the Terps. South Carolina appeared NCAA-bound after handing Kentucky its first SEC loss Feb. 15. The Gamecocks then dropped four straight and were upset in the conference tournament’s first round by Ole Miss.

It was a devastating defeat because point guard Tre Kelley apparently had tied the game on a 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left, but South Carolina had to settle for two points after television replays showed his foot was on the line. Suddenly, interest in Gamecocks sports switched to Steve Spurrier’s first spring football practice.

Kelley, a sophomore from the District’s Dunbar High School, averages 9.0 points and 3.6 rebounds. However, South Carolina’s title hopes rest largely on power forward Carlos Powell, who had 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the 69-66 NIT quarterfinal win over Georgetown. Maryland has struggled with strong post players, and the 6-foot-7, 225-pound senior will attempt to school the Terps’ less-experienced big men.

“Carlos Powell is playing right now like he wants people to see him play,” said Odom, in his fourth season in Columbia. “He wants to play again someplace next year. It’s not selfish; he’s just playing very well. He is pumping weights with a purpose. He is doing well in practice.”

The Terps have reached the semifinals following less-than-convincing home victories over Oral Roberts, Davidson and Texas Christian. Maryland likely will be without point guard John Gilchrist again, who has not played officially because of a sprained ankle and wrist.

However, there has been speculation Williams is reluctant to dress Gilchrist, who has been a source of inner strife, has said he may not come back next season and plans to go to the NBA predraft camps. Ledbetter is getting some seasoning in his absence as the Terps plan to use the NIT as a springboard to ensure they will leap back into the NCAA tournament next season.

“There’s a reason we haven’t won the [NIT] since 1972,” said Terps forward Nik Caner-Medley, who had 20 points in the comeback win over TCU. “There’s another tournament we usually are in. But we are just happy to still be playing.”

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