- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

Nothing came easy for the Maryland basketball team’s senior class, from needing a miracle run in the ACC tournament in 2004 to a pair of NIT berths to a slow start in conference play this winter.

Maybe that made the group’s Comcast Center finale even more gratifying than it otherwise might have been.

The streaking Terrapins rumbled past N.C. State 79-59 in their final regular-season game, sending them into this week’s ACC tournament in Tampa, Fla., on a seven-game winning streak.

“This is how I wanted it to end,” senior forward Ekene Ibekwe said. “This is what I’ve been saying since the jump. We definitely wanted to make it to the [NCAA] tournament, and right now I think we’re definitely in. We solidified our spot, and now it’s all about seeding. We just have to keep on winning.”

Maryland (24-7, 10-6 ACC) will be either the No. 4 seed or No. 5 seed in the ACC tournament, a difference that entails playing on Thursday or receiving a bye to the quarterfinals. The Terps need North Carolina to lose at home to Duke to have a shot at a No. 4 seed but could still be relegated to a No. 5 seed if they wind up tied with North Carolina and Boston College.

If North Carolina defeats Duke this afternoon, the Terps will earn the No. 5 seed and meet Miami in the first round.

“I’ll be watching that game and wearing my navy blue if I have any,” senior center Will Bowers deadpanned. “I’ll probably be sick to my stomach doing it, but I’ll probably have to root for Duke in that one. I might feel a little ill and I’ll probably have to take a shower after the game.”

There was no such teeth-grinding yesterday, as the Terps wore down the Wolfpack (15-14, 5-11) for the second time in less than three weeks. Mike Jones scored 21 points — clinching the first back-to-back 20-point games of his career — D.J. Strawberry added 16 points and Ibekwe had 14 points and 12 rebounds on a senior-dominated day.

The victory ensured the Terps the third-highest victory total in program history entering the conference tournament (behind the 1998-99 and 2001-02 teams) and provided Maryland its largest margin of victory in an ACC game since a 70-49 rout of Clemson in 2004.

Bowers, Jones, Ibekwe and Strawberry all were freshmen on that team, and they’ve since endured the program’s toughest times since the gloomy days of probation in early 1990s. And nearly four weeks ago, when the Terps were 3-6 in the conference, it seemed the snakebit group would not enjoy a happy ending.

The Terps’ winning streak, their largest in ACC play since 2002, changed things for a class that added walk-on Gini Chukura and junior college transfer Parrish Brown along the way. Maryland’s rebounding picked up, its passing proved ever-more crisp and its offensive balance emerged as a key attribute for an improving bunch.

“They kept trying to get there,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “It never stopped. … It gradually built to where we became a good basketball team. We have the attitude today that we’re still trying to get better.”

There was some sluggishness against the Wolfpack, hardly a surprise in the aftermath of two emotional victories (vs. North Carolina and at Duke), the welcome distraction of Senior Day festivities and N.C. State’s snail-like pace.

The Wolfpack pulled to within 55-49 with 9:52 left, prompting Williams to burn a timeout. The Terps responded with a 20-5 spurt, with seniors scoring 16 of the first 18 points in the run.

There were few details to sort out from there, notably the entrance of Chukura (who grabbed two rebounds, giving him a point, rebound, steal or block in 17 of his 27 career games) and another subdued postgame celebration.

Emotions remained in check as the Terps walked off the floor, perhaps because they know there will be more significant moments in the coming weeks.

“It’s definitely satisfying knowing that I won’t have to come back here and play in the NIT. This was my Senior Day,” Strawberry said. “In past years, we’ve had a couple Senior Days. I’m just more excited that we’re going back to the tournament this year.”

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