- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

Maryland’s string of 11 appearances in the NCAA men’s tournament might hinge on today’s regular-season finale.

The Terrapins (16-10, 7-8 ACC) likely can secure an at-large invitation and an ACC tournament first-round bye by defeating Virginia Tech (14-12, 7-8) in Blacksburg, Va. Otherwise, the Terps could fall from a fourth-place tie to as low as eighth place in the ACC.

The conference tournament begins Thursday at MCI Center, with seeds six through 11 playing in the first round. To avoid missing the NCAAs for the first time since 1993, Maryland probably needs at least one more victory.

“Anytime you can play a game that means something at the end of the regular season, it’s not all bad,” coach Gary Williams said yesterday. “A lot of teams would like to be where we are right now. … A lot of people get narrow in their vision when they look at us and say, ‘What’s wrong?’ Well, there are four or five other teams you might be asking that right now.”

Four teams — Maryland, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and N.C. State — are tied for fourth in the ACC at 7-8, with Miami at 7-9. Georgia Tech plays host to Clemson at 1:30 p.m. today, and N.C. State entertains Wake Forest tomorrow night.

The Terps’ string of NCAA tournament appearance is the ACC’s longest. The Terps’ current players, who were in elementary school the last time Maryland missed the NCAAs, don’t want to be the ones to have the streak snapped.

“I think of it all the time, but I think we’ll make it to the tournament,” forward Travis Garrison said.

Said guard John Gilchrist: “When you have a bigger challenge, it makes you dig deeper to want it.”

Maryland wants to end its erratic regular season with momentum, steal a game or two in the ACC tournament and head into the NCAAs with confidence. The Terps might have sealed their bid last year by ending the regular season with a victory over Virginia, but their ACC tournament championship, which carried an automatic berth, erased any doubt.

Today Maryland could play like the team that swept No. 6 Duke and came within one minute of upsetting No. 2 North Carolina on Sunday or the one that lost to Clemson twice.

“It all comes down to us,” guard Chris McCray said. “Sometimes we don’t play like we’re supposed to. Once we learn to play [regularly] like [North Carolina], we’ll be a good team.”

But the time for a turnaround is growing short. An 86-71 home victory over Virginia Tech on Feb. 8 was Maryland’s most lopsided win in the last six weeks, but the Terps have lost three of their last four. Forwards Ekene Ibekwe and Garrison combined for just five points and six rebounds against North Carolina, and Maryland needs a more consistent frontcourt effort.

“There’s always pressure,” forward Mike Grinnon said. “I think there’s more pressure [against Virginia Tech]. [But] this team has played well in big games this year.”

Virginia Tech likely needs to win today and have a strong ACC tournament to have any chance of reaching the NCAAs. Then again, the Hokies already have exceeded most expectations in their first ACC season.

“I don’t think our guys feel pressure,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “This is all unique to them. … They’ve won enough games that they’ve piqued the curiosity of some people.”

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