COLLEGE PARK — Before playing at Madison Square Garden in the 1990 ECAC Holiday Festival, Walt Williams was considered an up-and-coming player for a down-and-out program. A junior, Williams had stayed at Maryland rather than transferring to another school without penalty after the Terps were put on a harsh probation by the NCAA.
Ineligible to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament or the NCAA tournament that season because of the sanctions, the late December tournament at a place often called "The World's Most Famous Arena" became a showcase for the 6-foot-8 guard from Temple Hills known as "The Wizard" and a program under second-year coach Gary Williams.
"We were focused, man. We knew that this was our chance to show how good we were and play against the best teams in the country," Walt Williams, now a sideline reporter on the team's radio broadcasts, recalled last week. "We definitely knew we we knew what was ahead of us. We knew we weren't going to play in any other tournaments, that particularly tournament definitely took on extra meaning."
Maryland lifted the trophy after beating Rutgers and 12th-ranked South Carolina behind the play of its rising star, who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player after averaging more than 28 points, eight rebounds, more than five assists and three steals in the two games. Both teams had more celebrated players than Williams at the time.
"It was basically that I wanted to go out there and show the fans at Madison Square Garden that I was better than all those guys," Williams said. "It was great for me to have that situation on such a stage."
Williams sees some parallels between that trip more than two decades ago and Maryland's visit to New York this week for the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. Winners of five of their last six, including three straight NIT games, the Terps (25-12) will play future Big Ten opponent Iowa (24-12) Tuesday night in the second semifinal, with the championship game scheduled for Thursday.
Williams also seems a similar situation evolving for Maryland sophomore swingman Dez Wells, who after showing flashes of his NBA potential earlier in the season has emerged as the team's go-to scorer down the stretch. Wells has scored in double figures in 10 straight games, averaging nearly 18 points per game and putting up a career-high 30 in a win over Duke in the ACC quarterfinals in Greensboro, N.C.
"It's an opportunity [for Wells] to go to another level and it's great momentum going into next seasson," said Williams, who would set a Maryland single season scoring record as a senior and become a first-round draft pick of the Sacramento Kings. "They're talking about him a lot because of the way he played in the ACC tournament, the last few games of the regular season and carried on into the NIT. If you can do that in Madison Square Garden, it seems to take on a different meaning."
Second-year coach Mark Turgeon and junior point guard Pe'Shon Howard have their own memories of playing in the Garden for the first time.
For Turgeon, it came as a junior at Kansas at the start of the 1985-86 season, when the Jayhawks were matched up against Louisville.
"We played Louisville and 'Never Nervous' Pervis [Ellison] in the preseason NIT and beat 'em," Turgeon recalled Friday after practice. "I made CNN play of the day, which was pretty cool for me because I wasn't a great player. We ran a backdoor play and this camera was on the baseline and when I made the pass you couldn't see me because I was so little. Milt Wagner was guarding me, and all of a sudden this guy catches it and dunks it."
Howard's MSG memory came when he was a freshman and the Terps played Illinois and Pittsburgh at the 2K Sports Classic in November of 2010.
"I remember I had to shoot a free throw, my legs were shaking and the ball barely went over the rim and they both went in and I was like, 'Whooo,'" Howard recalled Friday. "The first game, I got in foul trouble because I was so excited I kept fouling everybody. I'm a little more relaxed now and experienced."
After Maryland beat Alabama in an NIT quarterfinal in Tuscaloosa last week, Turgeon talked to his young team about the significance of playing in the Garden, mentioning everyone from Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fighting there to Michael Jackson performing there to the list of NIT MVPs, including Hall of Famer Reggie Miller and former Terp star Tom McMillen.
"It's just really cool for our guys," said Turgeon, who also coached Texas A&M to a preseason NIT championship there. "Any NBA player, any great player, [they say], 'It's the mecca, it's the mecca, it's where you want to be.' I know our guys will be fired up, but I also know Iowa's players will be fired up to play in the building."
Maryland sophomore center Alex Len, whose NBA draft stock has gone back up with strong performances in the ACC tournanment and against Alabama (15 points, 13 rebounds, five blocked shots), said he first heard of Madison Square Garden growing up in Ukraine, when he watched Michael Jordan and the Bulls play there on television.
"Madison Square Garden is a really famous place, and we're really excited to play there for our seniors, Logan [Aronhalt] and James [Padgett]. It's the last time they'll be able to play college basketball," Len said.
While they happened more than two decades ago, the two games Walt Williams played there while at Maryland are still fresh. He can recall how many points he scored, and the players he scored most of them against. He can recall lifting the MVP plaque. While he went back there many times during his NBA career, the memories he created as a Terp stand out more.
"It felt like a pro-type of atmosphere," Williams said. "You could tell from the beginning it was a different environment than a typical college game."