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While professional basketball leagues around the world are gearing up for the stretch run, March Madness is upon the college basketball world in the United States.
On Sunday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association will announce the 65 teams that have qualified for the championship tournament, which will culminate on April 1-3 with the Final Four in Indianapolis. This weekend many teams that are "on the bubble" will jockey for spots via their respective conference tournaments.
Countless players and careers have been made or broken by their play at this time of year. One player who put on a show for the ages just two years ago in the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference tournament has since taken his trade to Israel.
John Gilchrist, 21, is the starting point guard for Maccabi Rishon, a team that has taken the BSL by storm this season. Gilchrist is the youngest foreign player in Israel this season and has averaged 14.2 points and 3.4 assists per game while helping Rishon to an 11-5 record and third place in the league.
But perhaps his brightest moments came in 2004, as Gilchrist put on one of the greatest postseason college conference tournament performances ever, leading the sixth-seeded University of Maryland Terrapins to an improbable ACC tournament championship.
The road to the title, Maryland's first in 20 years, went through the top three seeds in the tournament on consecutive days.
Gilchrist, just a sophomore at the time, averaged 24 points per game on 63.4 percent shooting from the field in nail-biting wins over third-seeded Wake Forest (87-86), in which he hit the game winning free throw with 3.7 seconds remaining; second-seeded North Carolina State (85-82), in which Gilchrist scored 30 points and led Maryland back from a 19-point halftime deficit; and top-seeded Duke (92-85 in overtime), en route to capturing the tournament's MVP award.
The former ACC star and current BSL rookie, who also averaged 6.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game in that tournament, looks back on his three days of glory with admiration, but also perspective.
"The game's never really been that hard, if you work hard and go out and play basketball," Gilchrist said. "That's how [Duke star] J.J. Redick does it. He goes out there, nothing on his mind, and plays for free. That's what it was for me."
Gilchrist's Terps shocked Redick's side in the tournament final. And Maryland climbed out of a 12-point deficit late in regulation to do so. With his team down by three points in the waning seconds, Gilchrist opted to drive to the basket instead of shooting a three, fortunately got bumped by Duke's Shelden Williams, and made the bucket and the ensuing free throw to knot the game up and send it to overtime.
Maryland advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, before losing to defending champion Syracuse.
"Guys have good days all the time," said a modest Gilchrist, who scored 26 points in the championship game. "I was just happy to play real well in a big tournament.
"It's weird when you see how many people react and look at you. In sports you can't get too up and you can't get too down. You've got to stay level and seize the moment for the moment. You work hard for what you do and when the stage is set you're prepared."
Gilchrist seized his moment in a big way, bursting onto the national scene with his performance and garnering attention as one of the top players in the NCAA.
He chose to return to school after his classic performance, amidst speculation that he might leave two years prematurely and try his luck in the NBA. His junior year did not go as scripted, though, as a rift with head coach Gary Williams and unmet high team-expectations lowered his draft stock immensely.
His name was not called on NBA draft night last June, and as a result he ended up in Israel.
"You always have to weigh all your options," Gilchrist said. "I knew I took a risk by leaving Maryland after my junior year, but in my opinion I feel like playing in Europe and turning professional was a better move than playing college basketball."
Instead of sulking like some star athletes might after being looked over in the draft, Gilchrist has taken a different stance, relishing in the ability to travel and still get paid to play professional basketball.
"Everything happens for a reason," Gilchrist said. "I felt that it wasn't meant for me to be at that time. I'm happy where I am right now. I'm able to travel the world, play basketball, and still make money.
"To me I didn't see anything bad with that at all. The only hard thing is being away from my family."
The transition to Israel from America was initially hard, but Gilchrist adjusted.
"At first it was a little difficult," he said. "You've got to be open-minded. You're able to try new things and appreciate other people's cultures. It really broadens you as a person.
"That's the thing I feel blessed about, just to have the opportunity to see a different part of the world that most people don't even get to see."
As a rookie playmaker, Gilchrist has surprised many BSL insiders with his confidence. He credits coach Guy Goodes for helping him grow as a player, more specifically with his outside game.
"He's [Goodes] helped me a lot," Gilchrist said. "He's always giving me tips on the European game. Here it's more penetration, kick out, shot. There are so many more shooters here in Europe. He's helped add another dimension to my game."
Gilchrist said that help from Goodes was a large part of Rishon's biggest win of the season, an upset of two-time defending Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel Aviv last month.
"It was one of those nights that everything was clicking," recalled Gilchrist, who had 12 points and three assists in the landmark 85-78 win.
"We had a great scouting report because coach Goodes knows [Tel Aviv's] offense inside and out. It was a low-scoring game. You can't just run and gun with them, you've got to value the ball and make them play defense."
There are parallels between Gilchrist's 2003-2004 Maryland team and his 2005-2006 Rishon team. Both are relatively young and ambitious squads with veteran leadership, and both have a heady point guard with lofty expectations.
"Our goal is to make it to the [BSL] Final Four," Gilchrist said. "We're the little guys fighting and crawling with the rest of the league to stay afloat."
With Rishon only looking up at perennial powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv and big-buadgeted Hapoel Jerusalem in the BSL standings, Gilchrist's goal may not be so far-fetched.
And with his experience in playing his best on the postseason stage, a win over Maccabi Tel Aviv already under his belt, and the new single-elimination format in the Final Four, don't be surprised to see Gilchrist's Rishon make another run at playoff time just like his underdog Maryland team did two years ago.
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