Terps survive perils of great expectations NCAA TOURNAMENT WEST REGIONAL

March 19, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

SALT LAKE CITY -- At this moment last year, there was unbridled joy.

This year, relief.

Last year, making the Sweet 16 was a fantasy for the Maryland Terrapins.

This year, it's business.

Last year, the Terps gave a stunning performance in the second round of the NCAA tournament, recording an upset of second-seeded Massachusetts that no one saw coming.

This year, there was a harrowing, slow-torture escape last night at the Huntsman Center, an 82-68 defeat of an 11th-seeded Texas team that the Terps should have put away 15 minutes before they did.

Pale enough before the game from his recent bout with pneumonia, Gary Williams was all but invisible after watching his team dawdle around for 35 minutes trying to give away a game the Terps were controlling.

If Williams doesn't have to go back into the hospital after this, he must be recovering his strength. It was the kind of maddening, nerve-wracking game that turns coaches into insurance salesmen.

"I think they were trying to kill me, that's what I think," Williams said.

Of course, a win is a win in the postseason: There are no style points, just results, and the Terps are back in the Sweet 16, a major accomplishment that offers the potential for more. The Terps professed joy in their loud locker room after the game, which was marked by a 31-point, 21-rebound masterpiece from Joe Smith.

Still, compared to last year's scene, the feeling was unmistakably more subdued. That's the difference between fantasy and relief.

What has changed since last year, of course, are expectations. The Terps weren't supposed to win two games in the tournament last year. They were happy just to be included. This year's team has been talking Final Four since the first dribble of Midnight Madness five months ago. Anything less than another Sweet 16 season would have been considered a failure.

Thus, the pressure that has been building all season came to a head yesterday. This was the game the Terps had to win to avoid putting a frown on their season.

There will be no shame in losing to Connecticut or UCLA in the West Regional next week. But there would have been shame in losing yesterday to inferior Texas.

Factoring in the expectations, the Terps had little to gain and much to lose yesterday. And they played liked it.

The Terps succeeded in controlling the pace with their defense, which slowed the Runnin' Horns to a walk and forced them into their worst offensive performance of the season. But then the Terps blew numerous chances to put the game away early.

"We should have been ahead by 15 points at halftime," Exree Hipp said, "and instead we were only up five."

The Terps led by nine four times, the last at 46-37, but kept coming up with ways to let the Horns back into the game. A steal allowed the Horns to score four points in the last minute of the first half. Joe Smith missed a dunk, leading to a six-point turnaround in the second half. Johnny Rhodes committed a foul on a three-pointer, giving the Horns three free throws. Mario Lucas missed two free throws with an eight-point lead.

And then, as so often happens in games that don't get locked up when they should, the Horns rallied.

With the pro-underdog crowd cheering them on, the Horns scored nine straight points and took the lead at 55-54 with 8:21 to play. The Terps looked to be in serious trouble. Smith was tired, sucking from an oxygen tank on the bench. Duane Simpkins had four fouls. Texas was finally rolling.

"To look up when you're shooting only 35 percent and see yourself in the lead was very encouraging," Texas coach Tom Penders said.

But, the Terps have often let opponents hang around in such fashion this year, and still managed to win most of the time. So they were on familiar ground, which helped.

"I think we can finally say that we're a mature team," Simpkins said. "When a team makes a run at us like Texas did, we have the confidence to know that we can make a run back at them."

Indeed, the Terps finished superbly, beating the Horns' trapping, high-pressure defense for open shots around the basket. Hipp dunked once and hit two free throws. Smith, fouled twice with the ball inside, hit three free throws. Keith Booth drove into the lane and hit a soft jumper. Suddenly, the Terps were back in front by six points with four minutes to play.

"But I don't think they had a comfortable moment out there until 30 seconds were left," Penders said.

No, and there was no wild celebration on the court, as there was after last year's upset of UMass. This time, there were hugs all around and heavy sighs. Neither yesterday's win nor Thursday's over Gonzaga was at all relaxing.

The Terps are finding out this year that being expected to win is hard, hard work.

Still, if the smiles were tired this year, they still were broad. Avoiding the upset bug that has run through this year's tournament was nothing if not a major accomplishment.

From now on, there won't be the pressure to live up to last year's standard at the very least.

From now on, the Terps can just play.

"We're plenty happy," Simpkins said. "As far as I'm concerned, the only difference between this year and last year was that we didn't throw cold water on Coach Williams after the game. We're saving that for Seattle."

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