Fresh(men) start for Terps' future

KEN ROSENTHAL

December 29, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- Three years from now, when Johnn Rhodes and Exree Hipp lead Maryland to its first Final Four, this will be remembered as the game that started it all.

"Watch out, NCAA, we've got some killers coming," Maryland senior forward Evers Burns said last night, reveling in the Terps' 72-67 victory over Louisville.

"They're just freshmen, but they're for real. When they're sophomores, juniors and seniors, I'm coming back. I might buy season tickets."

Burns better get in line. A victory over an unranked opponent in December ordinarily isn't cause to rejoice, but for Maryland, last night's game was a foundation for the future.

After two years in exile, here was the reward. A perennial Top 25 opponent. A game with NCAA tournament implications. The first non-conference sellout at Cole Field House in five years.

Louisville (2-4) isn't the same team that won NCAA titles in 1980 and '86, but it's no Maryland-Eastern Shore either. Of course, you wouldn't have known it, the way Rhodes and Hipp exploded in the second half.

The score was tied six times in the first six minutes after halftime, but then the freshmen took over. Rhodes scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half, Hipp 10 of his 15. My, these kids grow up in a hurry.

"It was something to see Exree Hipp and Johnny Rhodes do the same things against Louisville that they've done in some of our other games," Maryland coach Gary Williams said, trying to sound nonchalant.

Williams pumped his fist so hard upon entering the building, his jacket nearly fell off. The crowd was so jacked, you would have thought you were seeing Buck Williams and Albert King.

Maryland's last NCAA appearance was in 1988, and the two-year tournament ban added to its image problems. That's why last night's game carried such meaning -- and why the Oklahoma game in Baltimore on Jan. 19 is equally important.

Suddenly, the Terps figure to start the ACC season 8-1, including a likely victory over Howard Saturday. Assuming they go .500 in the conference -- a realistic goal -- the Oklahoma game could be the difference between 17-9 and 16-10.

Williams warned against such projections last night -- "we have to win some more games before we're considered a good team" -- but it's impossible to stay calm about a team that played five freshmen in the first 13 minutes, and three in the final five.

"This is one of those games that if you win, it gets bigger as the year goes on," Williams said. "But even if you don't win, if you play well, it gives you a lot of confidence when you go play the Dukes and Georgia Techs. That's the other side of it. You get an honest appraisal of your team before the ACC season."

Now Williams has his appraisal: His team is one big-time center away from being very dangerous. The Terps' depth is suspect, but when McClinton got into foul trouble last night, there was freshman replacement Duane Simpkins to bury a three-pointer.

Granted, the Cardinals are no longer the Doctors of Dunk -- they finished 14-16 two years ago and lost at home to Virginia Commonwealth in the Metro Conference tournament last year. Still, they were ranked 13th in the preseason, moved up to ninth, then fell to 21st and out of the Top 25.

They're talented, but erratic. The Terps trailed by five points at halftime, but had no reason to be discouraged. They shot 37 percent in the first half, and cost themselves nine points on two missed dunks and five missed foul shots. At one point, they went seven minutes without a basket. None of it mattered.

Rhodes took only three shots in the first half, but hit three three-pointers in the second, pulling the Terps to 38-36, giving them a 53-48 lead and extending it to 70-56 with 5:12 left. Hipp made seven of his 11 shots, including his last five and including a dunk that rocked Cole's foundation.

There were other heroes -- Burns had 14 points and a team-high 13 rebounds, McClinton nine assists, Chris Kerwin 10 points. But Hipp and Rhodes were the focal points, as they will be all season, as they will be for years to come.

So, what's next? Last year, the Terps started 7-1, then lost eight in a row, including their first six ACC games. This year, they open their conference schedule at home against Georgia Tech, then travel to North Carolina and Florida State. Three toughies.

Bring 'em on.

Ladies and gentlemen, Maryland is back.

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