NEW YORK, DEC. 28 -- For a team overwhelmingly picked to finish last in its league, there was a lot of talk about tournaments, or more precisely, lack of tournaments, following Maryland's 86-81 victory over Rutgers Thursday night in the opening round of the ECAC Holiday Festival.
The victory, their most complete effort of the season, gave the Terrapins a berth in the final of this tournament. The opposition Saturday at Madison Square Garden will be 12th-ranked South Carolina -- which beat Maryland, 51-50, last season in the opening round of the Fidelity States Bank Classic in Richmond.
The Holiday Festival provided the first opportunity for the New York media to query Coach Gary Williams and his players about a season without either NCAA or Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments.
"We look at this tournament as special; not only this tournament but the whole season," said guard Walt Williams, who scored 30 points against the Scarlet Knights. "Even if we can't play in the ACC or NCAA tournaments, for pride alone we want to win as many games as possible."
Added forward Evers Burns, "a lot of the guys were calling this our own ACC tournament."
In fact, there were scouts from Duke and Clemson in attendance Thursday. And with the ACC season right around the corner, Maryland (5-3) picked perhaps the best time to shake some of its problems.
Most prevalent was a tendency to collapse under pressure in the second half, which led to losses against West Virginia, Boston College and Jacksonville. Last night the Terrapins were ahead by 13 points in the first half, led by four at halftime, and trailed by 76-68 with 12 minutes remaining.
"Even when we fell behind I thought we were in control of the game. It was a matter of if we could shut them down then get enough points to win," Gary Williams said. "We didn't let the bad stretch take us out of the game like it's done before because we realized there was plenty of time left.
"Sometimes you look at a clock and see that there's five minutes left and you start to panic and get tight. That didn't happen this time."
Although they struggled to get points, the Terrapins played excellent defense, holding Rutgers to two field goals in the final eight minutes.
"I thought we played well and played smart," said center Cedric Lewis. "It's hard to say why we weren't doing it before or where the problems were exactly but I just hope we keep it up."
Added guard Matt Roe: "Looking at the tapes you could see that we've been our own worst enemies. We have to believe that we're a good team but there are times when we don't play like we do believe it. Everyone is getting serious now. You never know why things change, it's just good that it's happening now."
To win its second consecutive Christmas championship (Maryland won the Chaminade tournament in Hawaii in 1989), the Terrapins will have to keep their heads against a South Carolina team that gives opponents fits with stellar three-point shooting and a pressure defense that generates fast-break opportunities.
The Gamecocks, 52-49 winners over Brigham Young in the other semifinal, are allowing opponents to make only 39 percent of their shots and causing more than 17 turnovers per game.
On offense, South Carolina (9-1) is led by forward Joe Rhett and guards Barry Manning and Jo Jo English, who each averages more than 14 points a game. Manning and English also have combined for 34 three-point shots.
"We have to get good shots -- we won't be able to depend on getting things like offensive rebounds if we expect to win," said Gary Williams. "And we have to handle their defensive pressure, getting the ball to the right spots on the floor.
"That's a matter of concentration. Whenever we do that we're fine, but right now I can't get them to concentrate every time we have the ball."