Chris McCray returned to the starting lineup tonight in place of Gilchrist, who was being disciplined for violating a team rule (late for a meeting). McCray continued his recent outstanding play, leading the Terps as they jumped on State early.
McCray made two free throws, scored on a coast-to-coast drive, and knocked down a three-pointer to boost Maryland to an early 11-3 lead. Smith added the other four points, and Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek called a timeout only 3:42 into the game. As the teams returned to the benches, television cameras showed Wolfpack assistant coach Larry Hunter with an expression that clearly said, "What the hell was that?" At the Maryland bench, Gilchrist (still in his sweats) ran out and gave McCray a bear hug.
The play was very sloppy early, with the teams combining for 15 turnovers in the game's first eight minutes. NC State's Julius Hodge, who torched the Terps for 28 points last month in College Park, saw his primary victim Nik Caner-Medley switch over to guard him. Hodge wasted no time in hitting a jump shot and driving for a layup to draw the Wolfpack within 17-10.
Hodge's teammate Marcus Melvin, one of State's seniors playing his final home game, started warming up by scoring on a fadeaway jumper to cut Maryland's lead to five, but the Terps responded with a 9-2 run. Mike Jones started that burst with a three-pointer.
Gilchrist, who had recently entered the game, then took advantage of a mismatch with backup Wolfpack point guard Mike O'Donnell. Sendek had to go deeper into his bench than usual due to the absence of starting guard Scooter Sherrill, out with an ankle injury suffered Sunday night. O'Donnell, who has seen some important playing time this season, looked like a team manager matched up against the muscular Gilchrist. Noticing this, Gilchrist scored Maryland's next six points. The final two came on the old playground play, when he inbounded the ball off the back of State's Ilian Evtimov, stepped inbounds, caught the deflection, and scored a layup.
Later in the half, Jones and Gilchrist made back-to-back three pointers to give the Terps their biggest lead, 40-23. Maryland cooled off at that point, making only one of their final eight shots before halftime. This enabled the Wolfpack, behind the hot shooting of Melvin and Hodge, to cut the Terps' halftime lead to 44-34.
Maryland totaled 25 bench points in the half, with Gilchrist scoring 15 and Jones 8. McCray had nine points at the break while Smith added eight. Melvin led State with 15 points (3-6 threes) and Hodge scored 11. Their teammates combined for only 2-14 shooting, however. The Terps shot 51% in the half and made 5-8 three-pointers. State shot only 38%, including 5-14 from beyond the arc.
The Wolfpack dominated the first few minutes of the second half, building on the 6-0 run with which they ended the first half. Jamar Smith scored a couple of early hoops for Maryland, but State came out of the locker room on fire. They made eight of their first nine shots and opened the half with a 18-6 run to take a 52-50 lead.
Marcus Melvin got the Pack started with a quick three-pointer, then Hodge began scoring on an array of drive and jump shots. Back-to-back threes by Evtimov gave State the lead, but the Terps did not back down.
That was really what this game was about—not backing down. Maryland coach Gary Williams said after the game, "It would have been real easy to quit." Indeed, losing a 17-point lead to a ranked team on the road that was playing for an opportunity to win the league regular season title (still possible after Duke's loss to Georgia Tech earlier this evening), quitting would have even been predictable. One thing this Terrapin team has not been this season, however, is predictable.
Much as they did at Florida in early December, Maryland answered the Wolfpack's run with increased intensity and, perhaps more importantly, tighter defense. Over the next several minuts, there were five lead changes and two ties as every possession became a struggle.
The Terps' outside shots stopped falling, so they became more aggressive attacking the basket. Caner-Medley put Maryland ahead 56-54 with a conventional three-point play, and D. J. Strawberry gave the Terps a 62-60 lead when he scored on a wild driving layup and tacked on a free throw. Melvin and Hodge continued to provide the bulk of NC State's offense, and two free throws by Hodge tied the score yet again at 62-62 with 7:48 remaining.
At this point, the pace slowed to a crawl. The Wolfpack should have been comfortable with this tempo, yet they turned the ball over on three of their next four possessions and missed a shot on the other. Maryland was also struggling, missing five straight shots.
The game was scoreless for 3:03 until Smith came up with a steal, scared the hell out of Terrapin fans by dribbling most of the way down the court, then throwing a behind the back pass to Gilchrist for a layup. Moments later, Smith made yet another steal and fed Gilchrist for a breakaway layup to put Maryland ahead 66-62.
Evtimov missed a three-pointer on the Wolfpack's next possession that Smith rebounded and fed to Gilchrist, who was fouled and made both free throws. A jumper by Hodge broke a 5:51 scoring drought for State and cut the Terps' lead to 68-64 with 1:56 to play. Gilchrist then missed a forced three pointed and Melvin made two free throws to bring the Wolfpack with two points.
The teams traded missed shots, then Melvin missed a go-ahead three-pointer with :22 left. Hodge alertly fouled Smith, who came into the game shooting 42% from the line. He made 1-2, forcing the Wolfpack to go for a three to tie. Smith's defense forced Melvin into an impossible shot with :04 left that Smith rebounded. He was promptly fouled and made 1-2 again to give Maryland a 70-66 lead. That final free throw looked enormous seconds later when Hodge threw in a three at the buzzer.
Late-season games, the ones that often determine the success or failure of a team's entire season, are often decided by veteran leaders who make the clutch plays and want the ball with the game on the line. Julius Hodge and Marcus Melvin have demonstrated over their careers at NC State that they are that type of player. Tonight, John Gilchrist and Jamar Smith filled those roles for Maryland. Without their efforts, the Terrapins hopes for an NCAA bid would surely be over.
Gilchrist led Maryland with 21 points on 8-15 shooting, and Smith added 16 points, eight rebounds, and four steals. Smith followed Saturday's game, in which he had never played worse, with the best clutch performance of his Maryland career.
The Terps shot horrendously in the second half, making only 32.1% (1-9 from three-point range) but committed only three turnovers.
Hodge led all scorers with 27 points on 9-13 shooting and Melvin finished with 22 points (2-7 shooting in the second half, 1-5 three). The Wolfpack committed 19 turnovers in the game.
Moments after this critical victory, coach Williams told radio analyst Chris Knoche, "I was really proud of them tonight. I thought Jamar played big tonight." He added, "down the stretch was the best defense we played tonight."
Coach Williams summed up the season very well when he told Knoche, "It's been a struggle at times, but we haven't quit, that's for sure." The struggle continues Sunday night with the regular season finale vs. Virginia at the Comcast Center at 8:00 PM (televised on Fox Sports Net). Maryland is now tied with Florida State and the suddenly hot Cavaliers for sixth in the ACC with a 6-9 record. The winner of Maryland-Virginia should be assured of an NCAA bid, while the loser can make plans for the NIT.
Put simply, the season comes down to Sunday night. We'll see if this Maryland teams and the Comcast Center crowd is up to the challenge.
Notes From Under the Shell
A Maryland loss Sunday night could relegate them to the dreaded ACC Tournament play-in game for the first time since 1992-93.
I suppose there is no longer any question about Jamar Smith starting on Senior Night, is there?
Virginia has defeated three ranked teams recently (NC State, North Carolina, and Wake Forest on Wednesday night), but all of those have been at home. Their only ACC road win has been at Clemson. With a 16-10 record, the Cavaliers have to be thinking a win at Maryland punches their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland broke a seven-game losing streak against ranked opponents with tonight's win. Their record stands at 4-8 vs. the Top 25 this season.
Did this game remind you a lot of the win at Florida in early December? Maryland jumps out to a big lead early on the road, the home team catches them, and then the Terps make the clutch plays down the stretch—sound familiar? It's a nerve-wracking way to win, but at least both games have had happy endings for the Terps.
During his hot streak in the first half, television cameras showed Gilchrist blowing on his index fingers like a cowboy cooling off his trusty six-shooters. He then twirled his imaginary guns and dropped them in their imaginary holsters. It's a good thing for him that a Wolfpack player didn't run by him like an imaginary defender during that display, because he would have quite likely spent some very real time on the bench.
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Photo courtesy: (AP Photo/ Karl DeBlaker)