COLLEGE PARK -- Sophomore point guard John Gilchrist has never doubted his talent or that of his teammates. But, as the Maryland Terrapins head into a dangerous assignment on the road after just passing a test away from home, Gilchrist likes the other ingredient he feels is bubbling to the surface with more frequency.
Gilchrist sees the youthful Terps developing more toughness, be it on the boards, at the foul line, on defense or running the offense.
So does Terps coach Gary Williams. And they agree that, for Maryland to finish strong in the Atlantic Coast Conference race and secure its 11th straight NCAA tournament bid, the Terps must keep that mean streak alive.
The signs of Maryland's grit and poise -- which will be required in healthy doses tonight at No. 19 Wake Forest -- have been evident lately.
Take the second half of Sunday's 65-52 victory at Clemson, where Maryland (11-5, 2-3) claimed its first ACC road win.
There was sophomore forward Travis Garrison, who has made a habit of settling for jump shots and fadeaway moves, powering to the basket enough to draw fouls on back-to-back possessions and convert four free throws. That fueled a 25-3 Terps run and his own 11-point evening.
There was 280-pound freshman center Hassan Fofana making the most of his most meaningful playing time of the season. He pushed around 260-pound senior center Chris Hobbs constantly while milking four points and two rebounds out of a season-high 15 minutes.
There was Gilchrist, who has been one of Maryland's toughest players all season, acting like himself after an ineffective first half in which he drew two early fouls. Gilchrist scored 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half, largely by slicing through the Tigers with drives.
"The thing this year with this team [at times] is they've been scared to make mistakes," Gilchrist said. "Anyone that's good at anything can't be scared to mess up. You'd rather make a mistake by going hard than make a mistake by being timid.
"In the second half [at Clemson], we were committed to going out there and letting it all hang out, letting it loose. When you play that way, you play hard and your talent shows. That's the mindset we're starting to take on."
Not that the Terps have been soft until now. You don't beat three ranked opponents by pulling tricks. Maryland has been a solid defensive squad for more than a month. Even in defeat, the Terps held top-ranked Duke to a season-low 68 points on 33.3 percent shooting.
And Maryland has been steady on the boards, although the Blue Devils grabbed 24 of 34 offensive rebounds and won the game as a result. But on Sunday, Maryland ruled the boards in the second half against a Clemson team that is tied with Duke for the league lead in rebounding margin, allowing 21 points after halftime.
"It looks like our team is a good defensive team. That has to be our trademark," Williams said. "I like the we way we rebounded at Clemson, and we're going to need more of that against Wake."
The Terps also have to make free throws, which they finally are doing with more frequency, and it is helping to alleviate some of the scoring droughts that have hampered their half-court offense. Although they still rank last in the league in free-throw shooting percentage (.611), the Terps have converted at least 71.4 percent of their attempts in three of their past four games. In two straight efforts, Maryland has made 77.8 percent of its foul shots.
Tonight promises to be a stiffer test than the one the Terps encountered at Clemson.
It wasn't long ago that Wake (11-4, 2-3) was an undefeated, top-five team. Then came back-to-back road losses to No. 16 Texas and Duke by a combined 25 points. Then came a season-low, 66-point output in a home defeat to No. 14 Georgia Tech. Then came a late collapse and a 75-70 loss at Florida State on Sunday.
Starting with dynamic freshman point guard Chris Paul and including shooting guards Justin Gray and Taron Downey, vastly improved sophomore center Eric Williams and vastly underrated junior forward Jamaal Levy, Wake has five players who average in double-figure scoring.
"We've been sort of searching for guys to seize the game by the throat down the stretch," said Wake coach Skip Prosser. "We do need our confidence back. We need a breakthrough win."
800 and counting
Maryland's Gary Williams will be coaching his 800th career game tonight. The breakdown:
School .....................Years.......Games......... Record
American U...... 1978-1982 ..... 114 ............ 72-42
Boston College..1982-1986 ..... 121 ............ 76-45
Ohio State .......1986-1989 ..... 100 ............ 59-41
Maryland ..... 1989-present ..... 464 ....... 306-158
Totals 799 513-286
Matchup: Maryland (11-5, 2-3 ACC) vs. No. 19 Wake Forest (11-4, 2-3)
Site: Lawrence Joel Coliseum, Winston-Salem, N.C.
TV/Radio: ESPN2/WBAL (1090 AM)