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UM seniors seize the day

The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK -- The six seniors on Maryland's roster bid farewell to Comcast Center yesterday afternoon with satisfaction, knowing the reward for their recent sweeping success - a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three seasons - outweighed their "heavy hearts" as a sense of finality set in.

Quite frankly, Maryland didn't want to play at home again this year.

"I'm more happy it is my last game and that we don't have to come back and play an NIT game here, leaving the court and knowing it's my last game," said Maryland senior guard D.J. Strawberry. "I'm just excited that we don't have to come back here and go through what we did the past two years."

There is no comparison between what Maryland (24-7, 10-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) managed to accomplish this season, and the dismal senior sendoffs of the past two years. The Terps' 79-59 romp over North Carolina State (15-14, 5-11) punctuated a seven-game winning streak to close the regular-season schedule and enter March Madness as one of the hottest teams in the country.

It is the program's longest winning streak and highest win total since the 2001-02 season, when Maryland finished with 12 straight wins en route to a 32-4 finish and the national championship.

"It was perfect," Strawberry said of the regular-season finale. "It's just great to come out here and turn it around this season from where we were and not give up and play as hard as we can and get better every day and end up in the situation where we are today."

In order for Maryland to have a chance at the No. 4 seed and a bye in the first round of the ACC tournament, which begins Thursday in Tampa, Fla., North Carolina has to lose to Duke at 4 p.m. today. If the Tar Heels lose, though, and Maryland, North Carolina and Boston College finish in a tie for third place, the Terps will earn the No. 5 seed and face Miami at 2 p.m. on Thursday. If the Tar Heels win, Maryland will be the No. 5 seed.

"We'll take three [games] instead of four," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. " ... We're not asking for any help. We'll go play four if we have to play four, if that's the way it works. But I think we can do that. We have a deep enough bench."

Nearly everyone played yesterday, and Williams switched his starting lineup in favor of seniors Will Bowers and Parrish Brown. The regulars stole the show, though, as senior forward Ekene Ibekwe notched a double double with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and he added four blocks, too. Senior guard Mike Jones led the Terps with 21 points in 28 minutes, and Strawberry scored 16 points, made four assists and had six rebounds.

Maryland got off to a sluggish start and fell behind by four points early but entered halftime with a 35-29 edge.

"It's definitely going to take a little while when you're playing with heavy hearts, and you're playing with a lot of emotion out here ... knowing it's your last game and you're not going to be playing here anymore," said Strawberry, who had his initials and jersey number shaved into the side of his head, mostly because his teammates doubted he'd do it. "You start thinking about how fast it went, how many games you played here, all the good times and all the bad times. After Coach starts yelling, you get back into the game. It took us awhile but he got us back focused and we went out there and made that run in the second half."

The Wolfpack stayed pesky, but Maryland scored 10 unanswered points late in the second half to pull away for a 21-point lead with 4:07 left to play. It was around that point that the majority of fans in Comcast Center started to chant for senior walk-on Gini Chukura to enter the game. Williams said he had to "win the game first," but played Chukura two minutes. He added two rebounds.

"I wanted to get Gini in badly," Williams said. "He's such a tremendous player on our team."

N.C. State never got closer than five points in the second half, and Maryland led by as many as 23 points with 1:51 remaining. The Terps finished their season with a flourish after starting with a flop. Maryland entered the month of February with a 2-5 league record.

Williams said it would have been easy for this senior class to quit, especially considering the rough start that came on the heels of the "so-called lack of success" for two years.

"They were getting compared to the teams that went further than that and they had to live with that," Williams said. " ... I thought this year they kept trying to get there. It never stopped when we lost or we'd get a win or whatever. It just gradually built to where we became a good basketball team and we have the attitude right now, today, that we're still trying to get better. It's a great feeling to coach these guys."

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