Maryland's D.J. Strawberry puts up a would-be tying shot that misses the mark as time expires in the Terps' loss to Syracuse. (Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)
DENVER - They still make their coach and their fans squirm while playing with a lead, but the Maryland Terrapins keep finding ways to get it done.
Yesterday, in the one-loss-and-done setting that defines the NCAA tournament, the fourth-seeded Terps needed all of their resources to survive the kind of spotty performance that has defined their season, defeating No. 13 seed Texas-El Paso, 86-83, in a first-round Phoenix Regional contest at Pepsi Center.
Maryland, perhaps living with the hangover that followed its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament crown in 20 seasons, ran into all kinds of obstacles against UTEP. The 19th-ranked Terps could not stop the Miners' one-on-one offensive moves, reverted for much of the day to their poor free-throw shooting, went through another scoring drought in the second half, and never could put UTEP away, despite a handful of leads in the double-digit range.
But there was Maryland in the final two minutes, riding the heart of sophomore point guard John Gilchrist. There was Maryland in the final 91 seconds, making five of its final six foul shots. There was sophomore guard Chris McCray hitting two free throws with 13.6 seconds left to finally put down the Miners.
"Our problem this year is we don't put teams away when we should, but we know how to win now. We've got that will in close games," said McCray, who finished his game-high 19-point effort with the biggest shots of the day.
Had Maryland not produced that five-point spurt in crunch time, which included two free throws by freshman guard D.J. Strawberry and one by senior center Jamar Smith - who partially blocked a deep, three-point attempt by UTEP guard Chris Craig with five seconds remaining - the Terps might be back in College Park.
But Maryland (20-11), which blew a 70-59 lead it had built midway through the second half, continued to show a level of composure that belies its youth, while winning its seventh consecutive first-round NCAA tournament game and advancing to a second-round matchup tomorrow with No. 5 seed Syracuse. The game features the previous two national champions.
While achieving their eighth straight 20-victory season and moving one victory from their eighth trip to the Sweet 16 during their 11-year NCAA tournament run, Maryland might have coaxed a few more gray hairs out of coach Gary Williams.
"[UTEP] is one of those teams that gives us matchup problems. Each of their players has very good moves. ... They did a good job picking us apart," he said. "Playing with a lead requires a lot of experience. We're not that veteran, savvy team we've been the last few years. We're still learning how to play together and how to play in certain situations.
"I can't remember a team [of his] that's been in more pressure situations down the stretch. That really helped the last few weeks of the regular season, and it certainly helped us today. I'm not sure, to be honest, our players respected [UTEP] enough going into this game, but they sure do now."
This was an uphill exercise from the outset. The Terps looked dead in the legs early, and it had nothing to do with the mile-high altitude. It had everything to do with UTEP's ability to spread the floor, create one-on-one setups, and beat Maryland off the dribble.
And the Miners (24-8), who benefited from smart spacing on offense and limited Gilchrist and Smith with a triangle-and-two defense, made their shots count. Led by center John Tofi (16 points, 10 rebounds), super-sub forward Omar Thomas (15 points) and Craig (14 points), UTEP shot 60 percent in the first half, 51.8 percent on the day, and converted 20 of 24 free throws (83.3 percent).
But Maryland ultimately had numbers and talent on its side.
Gilchrist, who complained of feeling dehydrated during the game, asserted his talent at a crucial juncture.
After UTEP staged a 13-2 run to tie the score at 72 with 4:35 left, then took a 76-75 lead with 2:45 to go, Gilchrist scored six of his 18 points on back-to-back possessions by making a three-pointer and converting a three-point play to give Maryland an 81-78 lead with 2:08 left. Craig followed with his final three, setting up Maryland's free-throw run.
"It was definitely John time," said McCray, referring to the ACC tournament Most Valuable Player.
"Only the strong survive. That's how you've got to be this time of year," said Gilchrist, who added seven rebounds and five assists and committed only two turnovers. "Win and advance or lose and go home. Nobody wants to be a loser."
The Terps are winners again because everybody did something to make them live for another day. They won the rebounding battle decisively, 37-29, made eight of 18 three-point shots and made eight of their last nine free throws after starting the game 12-for-22.
Sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley hit a huge three-pointer to give them a 75-72 lead and finished with 12 points. Smith scored 14 points, grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, and blocked the shot that preceded Craig's desperation three at the buzzer. Strawberry came off the bench to produce nine points and six rebounds.
Freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe, who had five points, six rebounds and four blocks- all in 11 second-half minutes - might have saved the Terps. While Maryland watched its 70-59 lead melt away during a scoreless stretch of 4:37, Ibekwe blocked three shots and surprised Thomas by rejecting him inside twice.
The Terps wavered. They faltered. But, while winning their fourth game in the current winning streak by three points or fewer, they did not fall.
"We've been through too many games like this to panic," Smith said. "It's a big relief."