All is well when Terps play defense

February 14, 1997|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK -- That was a loud sigh you could hear coming from Cole Field House midway through the second half last night, when it became clear that the Maryland Terrapins weren't going to lose to Florida State again.

That was the only way the game was going to matter -- if the Terps lost for the fourth time in five games, plunging them into a genuine decline as they entered a tough stretch of their schedule.

But only in the first few minutes did the Terps play as if they had more to lose than to win last night.

After sleepwalking through the first seven minutes, they fell back on the fundamental ingredient of their surprising success this season -- defense.

The result was a lopsided victory that exacted a measure of revenge for the Terps' loss to Florida State last month, and also enabled coach Gary Williams, his players and the fans to exhale with relief.

"We had to suck it up tonight and decide if we were a good team," Williams said.

They decided they were.

And they decided at those moments when Florida State had the ball.

"This was all about defense tonight," said Maryland junior forward Rodney Elliott.

It's always all about defense with the Terps -- the aggres- sive, all-out pressure defense that has defined Williams' teams throughout his 28 years as a coach.

"We rely on it 110 percent," Elliott said.

"It's true," said senior forward Keith Booth, who contributed half of the team's eight steals. "We have plenty of guys who can score enough points. The key for us is how well we stop the other team."

Florida State had plenty of trouble after shooting out to leads of 16-6 and 18-11. The Seminoles managed only 13 baskets in the last 33 minutes.

They were without their starting center, Randell Jackson, who sat out the game with a hip pointer. That made a difference, particularly when Jackson's replacement, Kirk Luchman, collected three early fouls.

"The tide turned at that point," Florida State coach Pat Kennedy said. "We just didn't have the manpower to do what we wanted."

Still, no one player could have changed the game's momentum as the Terps swarmed on defense so furiously that the Seminoles struggled even to get off shots.

"They just manhandled us," Kennedy said. "The greatest thing about Gary's teams is that they never stop coming at you. That causes you to break down. We had chances to advance the ball on the wings [after the Terps began to rally], but we lost our aggressiveness. Their pressure does that to you."

It is not a stretch to say that the Terps' fortunes rise and fall with their defense.

After spending the preseason changing their basic press from ++ the full-court trap of prior years to a three-quarter-court trap, the Terps were superb on defense throughout the first three months the season.

Relying more on straight-out man-to-man than they had at any time in recent years -- a function of having players more willing to play defense -- they rose to second in the ACC in steals and field goal defense.

"With the athletes we have, we ought to play defense like that," Booth said.

When they faltered for the first time during the past two weeks, it was their defense that faltered.

"We stopped giving our best defensive effort for 40 minutes, and it cost us," Elliott said.

What happened?

"It's a long season and we're still a young team," Williams said, shrugging. "You go through periods when you don't play as well."

That period extended into last night's game for nine minutes. The Seminoles had an 18-11 lead when Ron Hale banked in a shot with 10: 55 left in the first half.

Then the Terps' Laron Profit hit a jumper from the side, and scored again moments later after a pass from Booth. The crowd started getting loud, the Terps stepped up their defense and the Seminoles stopped scoring -- for almost eight minutes.

Forcing a hail of turnovers and missed shots, the Terps scored 16 straight points to take the lead for good, never to be seriously challenged again.

"It was definitely our best defensive effort in a few weeks," Profit said. "That was a great run we had in the first half."

There was another run late in the second half, after the Seminoles narrowed the margin to nine, 57-48. The Terps put a lid on the basket for almost five minutes, resulting in a 20-point margin.

Down the stretch, Terps fans mocked Florida State with the war cry and tomahawk chop that Seminoles fans use.

When the final horn sounded, the Seminoles had scored a TTC season-low total of 57 points.

"I think you could see the revenge factor kicking in there late in the game," Kennedy said. "It's hard to beat a team and then go to their place in this league."

Especially when that team plays as hard on defense, and as well, as the Terps played last night.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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