NEW YORK, DEC. 29 -- If this is the only chance Maryland has to cut down the nets after a tournament championship, so be it.
In the aftermath of the Terrapins' 78-69 upset victory over 12th-ranked South Carolina in tonight's final of the ECAC Holiday Festival, as the players mugged for cameras and gathered at one end of the Madison Square Garden floor to bring scissors and twine together, thoughts of NCAA sanctions seemed very far away.
"I can't say how happy I am for these players," said Coach Gary Williams, who also won this championship as coach of Ohio State two years ago. "We've worked hard, but not many people gave them a chance to be good. They've fought through things college basketball players don't normally have to fight."
Tonight there was only joy, largely because of some inspired play from point guard Walt Williams. The 6-foot-8 junior scored 26 points and added seven rebounds before a small crowd announced at 5,082.
Cedric Lewis (12 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocked shots in the title game) and Garfield Smith joined Williams on the all-tournament team. Those honors were fitting, given the effort that catapulted the Terrapins (6-3) to their third straight win and the title, but it was clear that Williams was the focal point of the team's success. Williams was named the tournament's most valuable player.
As was the case in his 30-point, nine-rebound performance in the 86-81 first-round victory over Rutgers, Williams was brightest just when Maryland appeared on the verge of slipping into darkness.
In the opening half, Williams scored five points in the final 2:15, triggering a 10-2 run that helped the Terrapins to a 46-35 lead.
Led by Joe Rhett (team-high 19 points), South Carolina (9-2) came back, drawing to 50-46 with 15:14 to play. At that point, Williams hit a three-point field goal, and after a pair of baskets by the Gamecocks, threw down a dunk on an alley-oop feed from Matt Roe to make the score 55-50.
There was more to come. South Carolina drew to 62-60 with 7:28 left on a three-point basket by Barry Manning. Williams then made a free throw, but another jumper by Manning cut the Terrapins' lead to one point with 6:25 left.
"We never lost confidence," Walt Williams said. "We feel we can beat anybody, but we had to keep playing hard."
Maryland had lost games to West Virginia, Boston College and Jacksonville earlier this season by stumbling in similar pressure situations. Tonight the Terrapins responded to the crisis with an 11-0 run, holding the Gamecocks scoreless for nearly four minutes.
Williams hit a jumper from the lane, then on South Carolina's ensuing possession, blocked what appeared to be an easy layup for Rhett.
Evers Burns scored on an offensive rebound and after a South Carolina miss, Williams scored again, hitting a layup in traffic after cutting backdoor and getting a perfect feed from Vince Broadnax.
Fouled on the play, Williams's free throw put Maryland ahead 70-62 with 4:58 remaining.
On South Carolina's next possession, Kevin McLinton stole a pass and fed Williams for a dunk. Lewis ended the run with a pair of free throws with 3:40 to go, but the Gamecocks didn't score until a basket by Michael Glover with 2:40 to play.
By then, the ballots confirming Williams's honor were already being collected. Rhett, Brigham Young University center Shawn Bradley, and Rutgers guard Keith Hughes were also selected to the six-player all-tournament squad.
"We thought we could do very well here; we came with the idea of winning the championship," said Walt Williams. "A lot of people had counted us out because of the way we played early in the season; I can't say I blamed them but we knew we had a good team."
That wasn't the case earlier in the season, which made talk of Maryland's ban from the NCAA tournament irrelevant. Overwhelmingly picked to finish last in the ACC, there were some who questioned whether the Terrapins would win a game in the conference.
"This was definitely our biggest test in terms of running our offense," Gary Williams said. "They have a big center inside and each of their other four guys could come out and extend pressure on us. But Walt got us into what we wanted to do every time we came down court."