COLLEGE PARK - When they didn't receive an NCAA tournament bid 11 days ago, some Maryland players spoke as if they wanted nothing to do with the National Invitation Tournament. To them, the NIT might as well have been a four-letter word, rather than a three-letter acronym.
It still takes a little while, but the Terrapins eventually seem to warm up to the idea of playing in the NIT.
After another slow start in which they got down by as many as 16 points in the first half, Maryland moved into the tournament quarterfinals with a 78-63 victory over Davidson before 12,126 at Comcast Center last night.
Maryland (18-12) will play host to Texas Christian on Saturday at noon with a trip to New York and Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals on the line.
"It seems like there's a lot of pressure off of us," said Terps sophomore Ekene Ibekwe, who had 11 points, nine rebounds and five blocks last night and played his most aggressive game in weeks. "We feel that we have nothing to lose. That's the type of mentality we were supposed to have the whole year. This is a good experience for us. We just need to progress for next year."
It's not exactly where the Terps wanted to be at this time of year, but after enduring three losses to close the regular season and a first-round setback to Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Maryland is just happy to still be playing. Last night, however, they didn't show that until late in the first half.
Maryland, which had six scorers in double figures, closed the half on a 16-0 run over the final three minutes to forge a halftime tie, and they ultimately wore down the Wildcats (23-9) with size and athleticism. During one seven-plus-minute stretch spanning the two halves, Davidson was held without a point.
"Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong," said Wildcats coach Bob McKillop.
Terps freshman forward James Gist had a team-high 15 points, and junior forwards Travis Garrison and Nik Caner-Medley each scored 12 for Maryland. Caner-Medley added a game-high 11 rebounds.
"I think they're just enjoying themselves," said Terps coach Gary Williams, whose team was without injured point guard John Gilchrist for the second straight game. "There was pressure the last couple of weeks to make the NCAA tournament. When we didn't make it, we got down. Now we got out of it. Now, they are just playing basketball."
Gilchrist, who watched the game in street clothes but did made several three-pointers in pre-game warm-ups, said before the game that he is done for the season, but then quickly retracted the statement. He was in the training room and unavailable to the media after the game.
Asked about Gilchrist's health, Williams said, "He's legitimately got a bad wrist and bad ankle, so we'll see what happens. To play and get re-injured might not be in John's best interest right now."
In Gilchrist's place, junior Sterling Ledbetter struggled early and finished the game with six turnovers. But in his second career start, he also had 10 points, eight assists and three rebounds. It was Ledbetter's hustle and decision-making, along with Williams' switch to a full-court press, that led the Terps back late in the first half.
"Early in the game, I think I was a little excited," said Ledbetter, who converted a three-point play with under three seconds left in the first half to tie the game at 34. "I had to say to myself, 'Come on, Sterling, settle down.' Once I did that, things fell into place."
Brendan Winters led Davidson with 16 points, but the Wildcats made just 10 of 35 three-pointers, shot 25 percent in the second half, and never could regain the momentum they had for the first 17 minutes.
"Our pressure really helped us tonight," said Williams, whose team was down by 13 in the first half in last week's first-round NIT victory over Oral Roberts before closing the half on a 24-4 run. "That changed the game as much as anything."
The Wildcats also didn't have answers for Gist or Ibekwe, who used their athleticism to get several easy baskets. Gist had seven of the Terps' 16 points in the first-half closing run, including a one-handed dunk off a steal.
"Anything that opened, I was ready to go at," Gist said.
Ibekwe, who was dominant defensively throughout, scored on a dunk to put Maryland up 66-59. Davidson's Ian Johnson made two free throws to cut the Terps' lead to five. However, Maryland then scored six straight points and 12 of the game's final 14 to move on.
"We have the mind-set where we just want to keep on playing," Caner-Medley said. "We're in this tournament, so we're in it to win it. That's the way we're reacting to the situation. Everybody is disappointed that we are not in the NCAA tournament, but you just have to deal with the situation."
Next for Maryland
Matchup: Maryland (18-12) vs. Texas Christian (21-13) in NIT quarterfinals
Site: Comcast Center, College Park
When: Saturday, noon
TV/Radio: ESPN2/WBAL (1090 AM)