NEW YORK, DEC. 27 -- Maryland Coach Gary Williams wants his basketball team to learn to react positively in pressure situations on the road -- which was exactly the fix the Terrapins found themselves in tonight against Rutgers in the opening round of the ECAC Holiday Festival.
However, unlike games against West Virginia and Boston College, when second-half swoons led to defeat, Maryland played tough. A bruising defense limited the Scarlet Knights to two baskets in the final 8:03 and the Terrapins did just enough on offense to emerge with an 86-81 victory at Madision Square Garden.
Maryland (5-3) advances to Saturday's championship game against No. 13 South Carolina, a 52-49 winner over Brigham Young, which couldn't tie despite three possessions in the last 30 seconds.
The Terrapins' task Saturday certainly will be made easier if they get another stellar performance by Walt Williams. The 6-8 junior totaled 30 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals. Williams scored six of Maryland's final 12 points: a pair of free throws with 3:43 remaining tied the game at 76, a backward dunk off an alley-oop feed from Matt Roe put the Terrapins ahead with 2:44 left and jump shot at the 1:24 mark put Maryland ahead for good.
But the point-a-minute clip stood up only because of Maryland's defense. Rutgers (5-3) led, 76-68, with 8:03 to go but didn't score again until 1:49 was left, then went another 1:27 without scoring. During the nearly eight-minute span, Rutgers committed five turnovers and made two of 10 shots.
"You have to have one game like that in order to believe," Coach Gary Williams said. "Now, this one will be brought up again when we're in tough situations. When you're playing at home the crowd keeps you in games; on the road it's easy to lose confidence. You have to do it yourself and that's what we did."
At times in the young season, Walt Williams seemed to take his coach's words too literally. Coming in, he was averaging a team-high 18.3 points, but shooting 44 percent and committing five turnovers per game.
Williams had eight miscues tonight but they were hardly noticed in the wake of his 10-for-16 shooting, which seemed to include a basket whenever Maryland needed one.
"I don't feel like I've been pressing this season. I've taken some tough shots, but I feel like if I can make them I should take them," Williams said. "I don't think Coach Williams has a problem with that because I feel I also create shots for other players."
Indeed, Williams's 18 first-half points (including a 55-footer at the buzzer) drew much of the Scarlet Knights' attention, providing more operating room to Evers Burns (16 points), Kevin McLinton (12 points, five assists) and Roe (12 points, six assists). The total effort led Gary Williams to marvel that "Walt had 30 points, but I'm sure there were six or seven other guys who felt they were a part of our offense."
That was especially true in the first half. After struggling to score 64 points against Lafayette on Saturday, the Terrapins got 55 in tonight's first half. Many of those baskets came on fast breaks generated by the defense.
Even then Williams played a major role. Maryland showed a variety of traps and presses, all with Williams at the focal point of the attack. He used his height and long arms to steal or deflect a number of passes.
That led the Scarlet Knights to put a little more loft on their passes, which gave other Terrapins time to get into position to make steals. For the game, Rutgers had 20 turnovers.
Walt Williams "just wears you down in the press," said Gary Williams. "The first time you throw the pass over his head you think it's nothing, but as the game goes on and you get tired it starts to grind on you."
The Terrapins led by 13 points in the first half but led by only 55-51 at halftime after Williams's improbable shot.
That advantage dissipated in the first seven minutes of the second half. When Williams was called for goaltending with 15:21 remaining, Rutgers went ahead, 64-62.
Identical situations augured the Terrapins' collapses against West Virginia and Boston College, but tonight they persevered, tightening the screws defensively, then getting enough offense to keep the Scarlet Knights at bay.
The final buzzer then harkened memories of a different sort, to last season, when a struggling Maryland team won a Christmas tournament in Hawaii to begin to turn its season around.
Said Burns: "What we have to do is sustain this high into Saturday night's game."