Maryland (18-11) earned their spot in the title game the hard way (is there any other way for this team?). They set an ACC Tournament record by making up a 19-point halftime deficit and defeated the #17 ranked North Carolina State Wolfpack (20-9) 85-82.
An element often lacking in previous Terp failures in this event (only one previous semi-final victory since 1984) was their best players coming up big with a game on the line. Today, however, Maryland's John Gilchrist played like Godzilla with a jump shot, scoring 23 points in the second half to lead the Terps' amazing comeback.
Of course, a team needs to get their butts whipped for a while to be in position to need a big rally. From a Maryland perspective, that is exactly what happened to them in the first half. It wasn't that the Terps played so poorly. They weren't great, but they weren't awful, either. NC State, on the other hand, WAS great.
When the Wolfpack plays well, their Princeton-style offense can be a work of art. Their first half performance would rank up there with a Van Gough or Rembrandt. State made 62.5% of their shots-that's very good. They also knocked down 63.6% (7-11) from three-point range. That is very, very good—outstanding, actually.
Ilian Evtimov had the best strokes for the Pack, scoring 15 points on 5-5 shooting and making all four of his three-pointers. Julius Hodge added 13 points for State, going 7-7 from the free throw line.
Before the first media time out of the game, the Wolfpack already led 15-6. Maryland responded with a 9-1 run to cut State's advantage to 16-15, but the Pack then hit the Terps with an 8-2 run. After a Jamar Smith hoop cut State's lead to 24-19 Maryland's offense went cold. They scored only one hoop in a span of 8:46.
While cobwebs were growing on the basket the Terps were attacking, the Wolfpack embarked on a 21-5 burst. Evtimov was knocking down long- range shots, and Hodge was attacking the basket, scoring or getting to the foul line. A Chris McCray steal and dunk just before halftime "cut" State's lead to 45-26 at the break.
For Maryland fans watching at home, admit it, you spent halftime looking for a fork to stick in them, weren't you? If you were still rummaging around the kitchen when the second half began, you missed seeing the momentum of this game take a quick 180-degree turn in the Terps' favor.
Maryland wasted no time getting the fans' and NC State's attention after the break. Gilchrist got things going by turning a reverse layup into a conventional three-point play. He then fed Smith for a jump hook on the Terps' next possession and, moments later following a McCray steal scored on a floater. Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek called a time out only 1:19 into the half with his team's lead cut to 12 points and Maryland's bench erupting with emotion.
Hodge briefly slowed the Terps' onslaught with a dunk and a three-pointer, but Maryland's pressure defense was more disruptive than it had been all season and continued to cause problems for State. The Pack still led by ten points, however, 53-43 when the Terps exploded again.
Maryland scored ten unanswered points within only 2:05 to tie the game for the first time at 53-53. This run started with an odd delay-of-game technical foul against the NC State bench. McCray made both ensuing free throws, then scored on a drive following a blocked shot by Ekene Ibekwe. Only seconds later, Ibekwe had an embarrassing moment when he tried to dunk to finish off a fast break only to see the rim get in his way. To illustrate just how well things were going for the Terps, Smith was right there to grab the rebound and toss in a short jumper. Travis Garrison tied the score with a baseline jumper.
The Wolfpack had moved out to a 65-63 lead when Gilchrist showed just how much thngs were going his way when he banked in a three pointer. D. J. Strawberry immediately stole the ball and scored to set State back on their heels a bit.
With a short bench due to injuries to starting guard Scooter Sherrill (who also missed the Terps win in Raleigh) and big man Jordan Collins, the Wolfpack players were tired, but gamely kept fighting. Hodge and Marcus Melvin carried the load down the stretch, just as they had done in Raleigh. In the last 9:50 of the game, they scored all but three of State's points, with an Evtimov basket the lone exception. As in Raleigh, Hodge's and Melvin's efforts came up short.
Ultimately, the Wolfpack could not stop John Gilchrist. With plenty of help from Jamar Smith and Chris McCray, Gilchrist would not let State make one final run. After Maryland's lead had been cut to 79-78 in the final minute, McCray drove the lane for a layup to make it 81-78. A Hodge free throw cut it to 81-79, but Nik Caner-Medley, scoreless to this point, knocked down two clutch free throws with 27 seconds left. Melvin missed a three and a follow, and Caner-Medley put the game away with two more free throws. Amazingly, again just like the recent game at Raleigh, Hodge hit a three-pointer at the buzzer that cut the final margin but had no impact on the outcome.
Gilchrist played the best half on any Maryland player this season in the final 20 minutes. He dominated the game but did not monopolize the ball. While scoring his 23 points, he led the Terps to a 59-point half. Even having Hodge move over to guard him could not slow Gilchrist down. John finished with a career-high 30 points, making 11-13 shots (5-7 three-pointers), dishing out seven assists, making four steals, and grabbing four rebounds. Maybe since nobody's gun went off in their pants today he also helped out with security before the game.
Jamar Smith also rediscover his offensive game, scoring 23 points (16 after halftime) on 9-14 shooting and even making 5-6 free throws. Building on last night's strong showing, the Terps actually outperformed the best free throw shooting team in the nation today. State came in making 79% from the line and converted 77% (17-22) today. Maryland did them one better, knocking down 18-22 for 81.8%. The Terps were an amazing 21-31 (67.7%) from the field in the second half.
Julius Hodge led State with 31 points on 8-11 shooting and 13-15 from the foul line. Evtimov finished with 19 points, but scored only four in the second half. Melvin added 13 points but made only 4-12 shots.
So what led to Maryland's amazing turnaround? What was that halftime talk like, Gary Williams? "We talked about tradition of the University of Maryland," Williams said. "We have had a lot of pride on this team this year and that is what is important in this situation. I had a lot of confidence in these guys after halftime. We wanted to play and that was the key thing in that situation."
It seems that one this Terps team felt they had nothing to lose, they found it much easier to win. Two weeks ago, they were in danger of breaking the school's streak of NCAA Tournament appearances. Now, they are one win away from bringing home the ACC Championship trophy.
Truth can be stranger than fiction. We'll find out tomorrow if this chapter of the season's story has a happy ending.
Notes From Under the Shell
The previous record for largest halftime deficit made up in an ACC tournament game was the 12 point lead Wake Forest overcame to beat Clemson in 1987. The largest halftime lead lost in a semifinal game was only eight points, which had been accomplished three times.
Maryland's 59 points in the second half was their highest output in a half this season. Their 56.4% shooting was also the best of the season. It was the Terps' best shooting game in the ACC Tournament since their 71-49 win over NC State in 1989.
NC State fans were upset when Gilchrist chose Maryland over their school when he was recruited. I bet they're really ticked off now.
The #6 seed has won the last four times it has reached the championship game of the ACC Tournament.
Maryland's last ACC championship was in 1984, when they defeated Duke in the title game. They have been to the finals only one time since then, losing to Duke in 2000.
Gary Williams has never won a conference tournament in his coaching career. Duke has won the last five in a row, an ACC record.
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Photo courtesy: (AP Photo/Grant Halverson)