Originally created 03/15/04

Maryland's coach savors win over Duke



GREENSBORO, N.C. - Lefty Driesell once swore he would "screw that trophy to the hood of my car and ride all around the state of North Carolina for a week" if his Maryland team ever won the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament.

Don't be surprised if you see Gary Williams somewhere along Tobacco Road with a garish glass-and-wood ornament shaped like home plate strapped to the grill of his SUV.

Just a week after Maryland had to win its last two regular season games to avoid the dreaded ACC play-in game, Williams' Terps did the improbable with second-half rallies to defeat Wake Forest, N.C. State and ultimately Duke to hoist the ACC Tournament trophy that has tauntingly eluded them so often.

The sixth-seeded Terps rallied from 12 points down with less than five minutes remaining Sunday at the Greensboro Coliseum to force a rare overtime finale, halting Duke's run at a sixth consecutive conference title 95-87.

"I thought we had good enough teams in the past to come in here and be competitive, but we never seemed to play great here," the Terrapin coach said. "This kind of makes up for a lot of things that happened in the ACC Tournament."

It's been 30 years since Maryland lost what many consider the greatest ACC championship game, 103-100 in overtime to N.C. State in Greensboro.

It's been 20 years since Driesell led Maryland to its last ACC Tournament title, beating N.C. State, Wake Forest and finally Duke in Greensboro.

It's been 15 years since Gary Williams took over a moribund Maryland program, later that season suffering a ignoble 104-84 to Mike Krzyzewski's Duke team in Williams' ACC Tournament debut in Charlotte.

Williams has talked often in the past of how difficult it is win one of the nation's most coveted titles in the home state of the game's most accomplished practitioners. Only once in his 15 seasons at the Maryland helm has the ACC tournament been held outside of the Tar Heel state. Williams' record against Tobacco Road teams in this environment was a frustrating 3-10, including his only title game appearance against Duke in Charlotte in 2000.

Maryland won as many times this weekend, beating the top three teams in the ACC who all happened to be North Carolina-based. The Terps won a see-saw battle with Wake Forest in the quarterfinals, erased a 21-point deficit against N.C. State in the semis and overcame a 12-point hole in the closing minutes against Duke.

Maryland's performance, and MVP John Gilchrist's, epitomized one of the best and most competitive ACC tournaments in the 51 years they've been crowning postseason champions. Every game was competitive deep into the second halves, and the championship capper was pure gold.

"What amazing heart those kids showed this weekend," Krzyzewski said after coaching his first ACC tournament loss in 18 games. "They didn't allow themselves to be beat."

With 10 players on the roster with no more than two years' Division I experience and one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the nation, Maryland has been counted out a lot this season.

But never more than Sunday, trailing by 12 to a team that executed so flawlessly down the stretch the day before against Georgia Tech.

But mighty Duke finally stumbled and opportunistic Maryland cashed in. It was satisfying for everybody not affiliated with Duke, as there is no sympathy for the Devils in the ACC. Even a Georgia Tech fan held up a poster on Sunday imploring Maryland: "Don't let our loss be in vain."

But Sunday's title was most satisfying to Williams - right up there in his mind with the 2002 NCAA title win over Indiana and the 1993 season-opening win against Georgetown in the Terps' first game free of NCAA shackles.

With next year's tournament in Maryland's back yard in Washington, D.C., Williams will breathe easier off Tobacco Road, but at least he got to bury his nemesis first and carry the trophy across the North Carolina state line.

"This is special," Williams said. "It's the best ACC Tournament to me."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.