Williams' return gives Terps a spark


COLLEGE PARK -- Walt Williams Sr. paced outside the University of Maryland basketball team's dressing room at Cole Field House late Saturday afternoon, nervously puffing on a cigarette.

"I was wondering," he said, when asked what his reaction was to see his son play for the first time since suffering a broken leg six weeks ago. "I'm still wondering."

The elder Williams might have been the only one left with any lingering doubts. Though still favoring the leg, Walt Williams hit three big baskets down the stretch to help the Terps beat Wake Forest, 86-78.

After convincing Maryland coach Gary Williams at halftime that he was ready to play, the junior point guard entered the game with a little more than 13 minutes left, to a roaring ovation.

"I thought the roof was going to come down, it was so loud," said senior center Cedric Lewis.

It was a magic moment in what has become a remarkable season for Maryland (15-11). But there were more, starting with an over-the-head layup by Williams off an over-the-shoulder flip from Matt Roe, and ending with a three-point shot by Williams to put the Terps ahead, 80-74, with 1:36 to play.

Gary Williams has seen other players return from major injuries, but none with such flair for the dramatic. "I just wanted him to put in a shot early," said the coach. "I just didn't think it was going to be left-handed over-the-head. That's play No. 6."

Said Walt Williams: "It felt great to make the first one. It really helped my confidence and helped me concentrate on the game."

Those who even dared suggest that Maryland was a better team without Walt Williams had merely forgotten what he had meant )) to the team. Not in wins and losses -- the Terps were 8-6 before his injury, 6-5 without him -- but in terms of excitement.

"He gave them a freshness mentally," said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom.

That he played nearly 12 minutes was a tribute to his competitiveness, since he wasn't expected to play at all. As late as Thursday afternoon, Gary Williams said he didn't think his injured star was ready.

"That wasn't the conditioning," Gary Williams said. "That was his competitiveness and his talent."

Even on one leg, Williams' wondrous talents were obvious. It's the talent that helped him average a little over 20 points, and a shade under five assists, before getting hurt; the talent that helped him win Most Valuable Player in this season's ECAC Holiday Festival.

The comeback was pure inspiration for his teammates. "Just seeing him out brought us to another level," said sophomore point guard Kevin McLinton.

It was heartfelt not only by those rooting for Maryland, but by some on the other side of the court. Odom seemed truly appreciative of Williams' effort.

"I am delighted he played, not delighted in that he had a big part in our losing," said Odom, whose team had won five of six before losing to Maryland. "He is one of the best players in our league, and from what I'm told, one of the great people. You always root for players like that."

The return of Williams presents an interesting dilemma for Gary Williams, whose team closes the season this week with ACC road games against North Carolina State Wednesday and Virginia Saturday. The Terps are banned from postseason competition because of sanctions by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Though it seems doubtful that he would change the starting lineup with two games left, Gary Williams will certainly work Walt Williams into the rotation. "We'll save him for the right moment," the coach said, laughing. "Maybe if we lose the opening jump."

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