More sweat than usual to reach norm

January 25, 1996|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK -- The Maryland Terrapins won the games they were supposed to win.

Now let's see what they can do with the rest of their season.

Winning both ends of a homestand against North Carolina State on Saturday and Clemson last night was mandatory for a team that belongs in the NCAA tournament, whether or not coach Gary Williams gets them there.

The Terps had to win both games to give them a chance to make something out of their season, a chance they almost lost with their disappointing start.

They managed to win both games, though not without sweating big drops. They needed overtime to beat State, then blew a 14-point lead in the first half and a five-point lead late before beating Clemson last night.

With four starters back from a Sweet 16 team, the Terps were supposed to have it easier against the ACC's middle class. But they're a team in transition now, with freshmen playing center and point guard down the stretch, so a win is a win is a win.

Any Terps fans disappointed in winning ugly have their heads in the clouds.

"This was a must win for us, but every game is a must win now," forward Keith Booth said after delivering 17 points and five rebounds in the Terps' 65-60 win last night.

Whether the Terps can parlay back-to-back wins into something more is unclear, especially considering that they're hardly road terrors and still have six ACC road games left, beginning with Duke on Sunday.

But the point is they're better off today than when they took an 0-3 conference record and shaky sense of self-confidence into the State game.

"Mentally, we're in pretty good shape now," Williams said last night. "We've been through a lot of close games."

Williams seemed to settle on a more consistent and productive rotation in these two games. Obinna Ekezie became the center, and a quality one at that. Terrell Stokes became the crunch-time point guard. Though freshmen, they're producing more consistently than seniors Mario Lucas and Exree Hipp. It's their ball now.

Of course, it's easier for freshmen to produce at home in the ACC, particularly against Clemson and State. Playing at Duke, the most hostile environment in the conference, will speak volumes as to how far the Terps have come -- and how capable they are of turning these wins into a real run at the postseason.

That insinuates that last night's win proved little because it was supposed to happen. Maybe that's true. But Clemson is ranked 18th in this week's Associated Press poll and was coming off a major upset of Wake Forest, so maybe the Terps' victory was more meaningful than anyone thinks.

Besides, the Tigers were brutally tough to bear last night, demonstrating just how dangerous a team can be when it follows a coach's plans to the letter.

It was tempting to believe they were overmatched in the beginning, starting four freshmen for the first time since World War II thanks to injuries to three preseason starters. Coach Rick Barnes' bench was down to the nubbins. The backup point guard was a walk-on.

The game appeared over when the Terps blasted out to a 37-23 lead late in the first half. But the Terps got sloppy and the Tigers continued to run their disciplined offense, taking as much as 30 seconds with each possession. Cole Field House got quieter and quieter as the lead shrank.

The Tigers took the lead briefly at 50-49 with 7:40 to play and still had late shots to tie after the Terps rebuilt a five-point lead. But the Terps had enough resources to win, thanks as much to

Ekezie and Stokes as any players.

For the second straight game, Ekezie gave the Terps the inside game they had been lacking. He had 11 rebounds and shut the Tigers out of the lane on defense, a key factor down the stretch. His layup, off a feed from Stokes, gave the Terps the lead for keeps at 51-50 with 7:10 to play.

Even more critical down the stretch was Stokes' ball-handling and quarterbacking. The Terps are a lot less sloppy and wasteful with Stokes in charge instead of Duane Simpkins. Last night they consistently got good shots on key possessions, resulting in baskets or trips to the free-throw line.

Simpkins was still on the floor as the shooting guard, a position at which he is probably more effective (though other teams might be able to take advantage of him defensively). It was Simpkins' three-pointer with 2:21 left that finally broke the Tigers' spirit.

At the end, Terps fans were chanting "overrated" at Clemson, a cheap shot at a team that overachieved magnificently all night.

The truth, of course, is that the Terps have been the overrated team this year.

"But we've only played five ACC games, remember," senior Johnny Rhodes said. "It's still early."

It is. And these two wins give the Terps a chance to dispel the idea that they're overrated. Let's see if they can.

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