The University of Maryland men's basketball team never envisioned this season would end playing in one of the game's top arenas in an event reserved for squads considered not good enough for the NCAA tournament.
Maryland entered the season looking to continue its string of 11 consecutive berths in the NCAA tournament with its sights on St. Louis and the Final Four. But the Terrapins will instead play in tonight's National Invitation Tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
Memphis (22-15) vs. Saint Joseph's (23-11), 7 p.m.
Maryland (19-12) vs. South Carolina (18-13), 30 minutes after first game.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York.
Data: Maryland is 3-0 since junior point guard Sterling Ledbetter took over for injured starter John Gilchrist (ankle, wrist) as he has averaged 7.3 points, 6.3 assists and 6 rebounds. Junior forward Travis Garrison posted 45 points and 27 rebounds collectively during the first three games of the NIT. Maryland is one victory shy of posting its ninth consecutive, 20-win season. For South Carolina, former All-Met guard Tre Kelley (Dunbar) averages nine points per game and has scored in double figures 16 times this season. He will be counted on to provide perimeter scoring to complement the inside play of senior forward Carlos Powell (16.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Memphis junior forward Rodney Carey and freshman guard Darius Washington Jr. have averaged 19 and 16.6 points, respectively, during the NIT -- an event the Tigers are looking to win for the second time in the past four years. Saint Joseph's, seeking its second title in the past three years, has a balanced offense that features Pat Carroll (18.2 ppg), Chet Stachitas (10.8 ppg) and Dwayne Jones (10 ppg) and a defense that led the Atlantic 10 in field goal percentage by allowing teams to shoot just 40 percent from the field.
-- Jon Gallo
Maryland (19-12) will play South Carolina (18-13) at around 9:30, 30 minutes after Memphis (22-15) and Saint Joseph's (23-11) meet in the first semifinal. The winners will play for the championship Thursday at 7.
"When the season began, we all thought we'd be playing the NCAA tournament, but things didn't work out that way for us," junior forward Travis Garrison said. "It's not the NCAA tournament, but it's the next biggest thing. And we still had to win three games to get this far."
Maryland's players left the locker room following an 85-73 quarterfinal victory over Texas Christian on Saturday brimming with confidence. Players were excited about the team's first NIT semifinal appearance since claiming the NIT title in 1972, when a squad led by Len Elmore and Tom McMillen atoned for finishing one game shy of making the NCAA tournament.
Three of this season's semifinalists came tantalizingly close to a spot in the field of 65 instead of the one reserved for the next-best 40.
In the Conference USA tournament, Memphis's Darius Washington Jr. was fouled shooting a three-pointer by Louisville's Francisco Garcia with no time remaining and his team trailing by two points. Washington made the first one, but he missed the next two, and his team lost an automatic NCAA berth.
In the Atlantic 10 tournament final, Saint Joseph's led George Washington, 49-46, with 6 minutes 54 seconds remaining, but the Colonials closed the game on a 30-18 run to earn the conference's automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
Maryland lost three times to Clemson -- including in the first round of the ACC tournament -- and once to Miami during the regular season. Many college basketball insiders believe that a victory in any of those games would have given the Terrapins a spot in the NCAA tournament.
"I didn't like the way the regular season and the ACC tournament ended, so the opportunity to play [in the NIT], I never thought twice about it," Coach Gary Williams said. "This isn't the easiest situation for a player. If you're in a major conference, you have expectations of going to the NCAA."
South Carolina was in contention for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament before ending the regular season by losing five of seven games and then losing to Ole Miss in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
"Getting to go to New York City and play in Madison Square Garden where so many great players have played means a lot," said Maryland junior forward Nik Caner-Medley. "Winning the NIT is a big deal and would say a lot about how hard our team's played."