Terps shoot suspense into mix Team savors 7-0 start

tougher schedule looms

December 15, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- They have yet to play a Top 10 team, something that could happen later this month at the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, and will happen with some regularity beginning next month when they resume their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.

They have yet to play a team with a big, athletic frontcourt, with players who are taller but just as quick as Keith Booth, and quicker but just as strong as Obinna Ekezie. That, too, will happen once the Maryland Terrapins get into the meat of their schedule.

But the questions being asked going into the 1996-97 season -- by fans, media and Maryland coach Gary Williams himself -- have so far been answered as the team has produced the school's best start in 21 years.

"We've done what we've had to do to get to this point," Williams said Friday, still savoring his team's 77-63 victory over Georgia Tech in its ACC opener, its seventh straight win without a defeat this season. "But we have to get better."

Just as Maryland's ambitious early nonconference schedule a year ago shook the fragile psyche of several players, the first four games this year helped build the confidence of these Terrapins.

Not that they were lacking a belief in their ability, individually or collectively.

"We knew how good we could be, and it didn't matter what anybody outside thought," said Booth, who has emerged as both a consistently prolific scorer and the clear leader on what is easily the most emotional Maryland team in recent memory.

But it helped to open with Howard in the quiet obscurity of a half-filled Cole Field House rather than top-ranked Kentucky, the subsequent NCAA champion, on national television. It helped to play UMBC and Chicago State rather than Massachusetts and UCLA.

"Two of those games last year were made when we didn't know whether Joe Smith would be back or not," Williams said. "This year, we knew we were going to be young. It's worked out. But there comes a time when you have to play a team at your level."

That came a week ago in the opening round of the Franklin National Bank Classic at USAir Arena, when Maryland easily handled an experienced California team that had played extremely well in Maui to open the season. An 80-64 victory over the Pacific-10 Bears was a sign of what would happen in the next two games.

Williams said that his team's performance against Cal was "a relief." It proved that all the talk about Maryland's new-found chemistry wasn't just preseason hype. The 74-68 win over a George Washington team that was ranked 25th in the Associated Press poll the previous week showed something else.

It proved something about Maryland's character. In that game, the Terrapins came back from a 16-4 deficit in the first five minutes and again after failing to hold an eight-point lead down the stretch.

"If we fell behind like that a year ago, with the way GW came out flying at us, I think we might have folded," Williams said.

What Williams believed to be the two most crucial elements to this team's success going into the season -- its ability to hang on the defensive boards and to score inside off its half-court offense -- have been there for the most part.

Though out-rebounded in its past two games -- nearly 2-to-1 on the offensive boards -- neither of its opponents could contend with Maryland's quickness inside. Booth took advantage of that against both GW's Yegor Mescheriakov and Georgia Tech's Eddie Elisma.

On successive plays Thursday night early in the second half, Booth got the ball on the left wing and blew past Elisma for power drives. The first time Elisma stood helpless; the second time the 6-9 Georgia Tech center fouled Booth as the 6-6 forward from Baltimore made the layup.

"Whenever a guy is bigger than me, I feel I can take him to the basket," Booth said.

The success of Maryland's half-court offense, which often seemed to stagnate last season, and even the year before when Smith starred for the Terrapins, comes because this team passes so well. It's not just that Williams often plays three guards, or that sophomore Terrell Stokes is a classic point guard who looks to pass first and shoot later.

"All five guys can pass," said sophomore Laron Profit. "Even the big guys in the post."

Williams said before the season began that this Maryland team reminded him of a team he had at Boston College. Led by Michael Adams, the 1984-85 Eagles were small and scrappy and managed to contend with the giants of the Big East in a season in which that conference sent three teams to the Final Four.

That team won its first 11 games, finished 20-11 and came within a last-second basket of reaching the NCAA round of eight. Williams has had other teams start well and fade, or start sluggishly and build as the season went on.

"I don't like to compare teams," Williams said. "I've had some pretty good teams at American, BC, Ohio State and here. I'm really happy for these guys. They've worked hard, and so far we've gotten results."

Is he excited?

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