A day when everything goes right

March 20, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

WICHITA, Kan. -- Mario Lucas grabbed the ball off the backboard, pump-faked once and put it back up just as a pair of Massachusetts arms came crashing into him. The ref's whistle sounded as Lucas went sprawling and the ball banked off the glass and through the net.

Johnny Rhodes could contain himself no longer. Maryland's sophomore guard turned his head to the heavens and screamed.

"Unbelievable!" he shouted in the din of the Kansas Coliseum, raising his arms in triumph.

There were still seven minutes to play. Too soon to celebrate. But not too soon to admit that, indeed, something mystical was happening here in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Ten minutes earlier, the Terps had been as good as dead. Sensational Freshman Joe Smith was being limited by Marcus Camby. Keith Booth was on the bench with four fouls. Duane Simpkins had been harassed into five turnovers. UMass was up 10 points and on a roll early in the second half.

"I had doubts there, sure, plenty of doubts," Terps coach Gary Williams said later.

And then . . .

"I've never experienced anything like that, as long as I've been playing ball," Rhodes said later. "I mean, suddenly everything started working."

Suddenly, everything the Terps threw up went in the basket. Suddenly, they were incapable of missing a shot, of taking a single false step.

Don't try to figure it. It just happened. Suddenly, the Terps were Villanova and UMass was Georgetown in the '85 championship miracle.

"Their eyes kept getting wider and wider and wider as we kept hitting," the Terps' Exree Hipp said. "I mean, we've always had the talent to do something like this. We've just never done it."

The Terps scored on 10 straight possessions.

They made six straight shots.

They went from 10 points down to 14 points up in a period of 11 minutes, outscoring the second-seeded Minutemen 38-14.

You had to see it to believe it.

This wasn't Smith and Booth and the usual suspects. This was a three-pointer by Lucas, who had trembled on the court in the first half. This was a three-pointer by Hipp, the team's most erraticshooter.

This was a turnaround jumper from the wing by Lucas, suddenly Super Mario. This was a three-pointer from the key by Simpkins. This was Hipp falling down in the lane and still banking one in.

This was the Terps going more than seven minutes without missing.

"All I can say is, it was amazing," said UMass forward Lou Roe. "It seemed like they made everything. We couldn't stop them."

When Lucas converted his offensive rebound into a three-point play, the Terps had an 82-68 lead with seven minutes left and the UMass players had that hollow-eyed look. They were too dazed to rally. They never got within six points the rest of the way.

"Sweet 16, plenty sweet," Rhodes said slowly, letting the words roll around his mouth after the Terps' 95-87 win. "That was the greatest game. We stayed calm when we were down. And then we played perfect."

Said Williams: "It just shows you what happens when you run your offense right and get the good shots. We've had trouble all year doing that. Maybe it just took this long for the pieces to come together."

Williams took a Gatorade bath in the locker room. Then his playersemerged and tried to explain how it happened. Not that there was any reasonable explanation. How could you explain Lucas and Hipp combining for 25 second-half points?

"Exree has the talent to do that kind of thing. We just haven't seen it as much as we'd like," Williams said.

Hipp smiled. "My best game, that's for sure," he said. "It felt good."

And if Hipp's burst was a surprise, Lucas' was a miracle. The 6-8 sophomore averages five points a game. In the first half yesterday, he was hesitant and scoreless in eight minutes, as if the pressure of replacing the foul-strapped Booth was too much.

"But our guys did a good job of picking him up at halftime, encouraging him," Williams said. "They knew what the deal was."

When Lucas hit that confidence-building first three-pointer -- his second three-pointer of the season -- suddenly he was a different player, aggressive inside, alert on defense.

"Mario Lucas played out of his mind," said Donta Bright of UMass. "I never thought in a hundred years he could play like that."

Lucas is the Terps' secret sharpshooter, more accurate than most fans realize, but even this was beyond his dreams.

"Maybe not many people know I can shoot, even though the players [on the team] do," Lucas said. "But that first one really got me going. I was just happy to contribute after the way the first half went."

In the end, the players mobbed at midcourt at the buzzer, then ran to the side of the stands where roughly 100 Maryland fans were cheering.

"How about it? How about it?!" Rhodes shouted.

The UMass players stood off to the side, watching glumly. Some had picked them to win the regional.

"We just didn't want it as much as they did," coach John Calipari said.

In the end, Williams stood in a hallway outside the locker room, his hair matted from his Gatorade bath, his smile unable to disappear. His Terps were supposed to complete their rise from the Bias scandal in another year or two. Not now. Not yesterday.

"Who do you want to play in the regional [Friday night in Dallas], Texas or Michigan?" someone asked him.

"You know," Williams said, "that's not something I was giving a lot of thought to last weekend."

He didn't answer the question. He just shook his head. "This," he said, "feels unbelievable."

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