NEW YORK, DEC. 30 -- From Athletic Director Andy Geiger to Coach Gary Williams to the last man on the squad, there was great joy over the University of Maryland's stunning 78-69 upset of No. 12 South Carolina in the championship of the ECAC Holiday Festival tournament Saturday night in Madison Square Garden.
"You have to be lucky, get some breaks just to get into the NCAA tournament and then you could lose in the first round," said guard Matt Roe. "This tournament is something for us."
Williams agreed that the victory was a bit more special because of NCAA sanctions banning the Terrapins (now 6-3 with a three-game win streak) from postseason play this year. Because the school cannot appear on live television this season, Maryland also is ineligible for the ACC tournament in March.
Entering this weekend, Maryland's chances for earning a berth in the NCAAs would have seemed dubious at best. Although they conceivably could have been 7-0 instead of 4-3, the fact that the Terrapins had let games to West Virginia, Boston College and Jacksonville slip away and looked indifferent in a victory over Lafayette last Saturday, appeared to indicate a number of substantial problems.
"All you can do as a coach is put out there 'This is what we have to do to be good,' and then it's up to them," said Williams. "The first thing this team had to do, if it was going to be good, was work hard but coming off our earlier games I didn't know if we could do that."
That question seems to have been dispelled here. After scoring just 64 points against Lafayette, Maryland registered 55 in the opening 20 minutes of its 86-81 triumph over Rutgers last Thursday. More impressive was the way the Terrapins kept their poise in the face of a late rush by the Scarlet Knights.
That game easily was Maryland's best to date, until Saturday night. South Carolina's starters were quicker than Maryland's, with the possible exception of Cedric Lewis at center.
Even with Tony Massenburg and Jerrod Mustaf on the team, that quickness likely spelled the difference last year in Maryland's 51-50 loss to South Carolina in the Richmond tournament.
However, Maryland never trailed this time, taking the play right to the Gamecocks. Instead of opening in a passive zone to try to camouflage the lack of speed, the Terrapins opened with an aggressive man-to-man defense.
Throughout the contest the Maryland bench kept barking instructions to the players on the floor. In fact, with a crowd of 5,082, the most consistently audible sound was Terrapins assistant Billy Hahn yelling to "stay down" on defense, to not fall for South Carolina's ball fakes.
On offense, Maryland got three dunks from Walt Williams in the opening eight minutes. When the junior point guard went to the bench in the first half, Kevin McLinton picked up the slack, drilling a three-point basket on one possession, then hitting a jumper and drawing a foul for a three-point play two minutes later.
"We came up here with the idea of being focused," McLinton said. "We were playing against two teams that have been in the top 25 and we supposedly weren't going to be able to do anything. This will propel us into the ACC season -- we made a statement that we have a good team."
Of course, the most eloquent statement was made by Walt Williams, who earned most valuable player honors after getting 56 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists in the two games.
Williams scored 26 against South Carolina (9-2). As exciting as his acrobatic dunks were, more impressive was his leadership against the South Carolina defensive pressure and an uncanny ability to score when Maryland badly needed points.
When the Gamecocks drew to 36-33 late in the first half, Williams stole an inbounds pass and scored, then calmly dribbled up the floor and hit a three-point basket on the next possession to help extend the halftime lead to 46-35.
When South Carolina used an 11-4 rush at the start of the second half to cut the lead to 50-46, Williams hit another three-pointer. Still, South Carolina rallied again, making the score 63-62 with 6:25 left.
Ten seconds later, Williams hit a tough jumper from the lane. Shortly after Evers Burns scored on an offensive rebound, Williams cut backdoor and took a perfect bounce pass from Vince Broadnax. Hanging in the air, Williams scored and drew a foul; the free throw upped Maryland's lead to 70-62. When McLinton stole the ball at midcourt on the ensuing possession, he fed Wiliams for a slam dunk.
"When the other teams would make a run earlier in the season we weren't able to rebound from it," Walt Williams said. "But we've learned; we played together very well."
The surge of unity comes at a most opportune time, with the ACC season beginning Wednesday night at Wake Forest. Three days later the Terrapins host Clemson at Cole Field House.
"Our players will believe in themselves more now," said Coach Gary Williams. "That's the biggest thing we've had to overcome since I've been here. But we don't want to be satisfied with this, we want to be even better when we get to Wake Forest on Wednesday."