Terps' cavalier attitude isn't that of winner

March 03, 1997|By John Eisenberg

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Can a college basketball team bTC forget how to win?

"Sure, absolutely," said Gary Williams, coach of the Maryland Terrapins, after yesterday's 81-74 loss to Virginia at University Hall.

Are the Terps, losers of seven of their past 10 games, such a team?

"Be interesting to see," Williams said. "That'll be our theme next week. Working on that."

The Terps certainly resembled a team that had forgotten how to win yesterday.

They were ahead by 10 points with less than 15 minutes to play against a marginal team that has wallowed in the lower half of the ACC standings all season.

If the Terps had any confidence or killer instinct, they wouldn't have lost.

Instead, they watched with a chilling submissiveness as Virginia went on a 29-11 run to take over the game.

True, the game meant nothing to the Terps and everything to Virginia, which needed to win to better its argument for making the NCAA tournament, so the result wasn't a total surprise.

But the way the Terps lost was particularly unsettling.

The way the Terps lost made it clear, inescapably, that they aren't playing anywhere close to the level they reached earlier in the season.

They aren't passing cleverly, shooting well or playing with guile. Their defense is too relaxed, their offense forced.

Most of all, they aren't throwing complete games.

"We're not going 40 [minutes] and it's really hurting us," said sophomore guard Laron Profit.

All of this wasn't quite so obvious before now because many of the Terps' recent losses were explainable, even understandable. Duke, North Carolina and Massachusetts were among the nation's hottest teams. Clemson on the road is never an easy spot.

Losing to those teams didn't have to mean that the Terps were falling apart.

Yesterday's loss was different, the first indication that something may have gone very wrong.

The Terps played hard and well for 25 minutes, and then played miserably, particularly on defense, as Virginia scored 41 points down the stretch.

Williams and his players were left to chew on these cold, hard facts after the final buzzer:

They have won exactly three games in the past five weeks.

They haven't beaten a ranked team in 35 days.

Since peaking with a 17-2 record and a No. 5 national ranking in late January, they have beaten only the three worst teams in the ACC, Florida State, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech.

Does that sound like a team that has forgotten how to win?

Sure does.

Hardly a comforting thought with the start of the ACC tournament just four days away, with the NCAAs coming right after that.

"Am I concerned? Yes, I'm very concerned that we're losing these games," Williams said. "We had some great times early on. These are tough times now. Real tough. We're going to find out about ourselves now. It's easy to have good chemistry when you're winning. It takes character to stay together when you're losing."

Do the Terps have the necessary amount of character?

"That's why I'm still optimistic," Williams said. "I have loved the character of this team all season."

But if the players are going to regroup, Williams has to lead them. He has to sell them on themselves, a tricky proposition for a team slumping so badly.

"That's my job now, putting the season into perspective for them," Williams said. "We have lost a lot of games lately, but the fact of the matter is that we have split with Duke, Carolina, Wake and Virginia. That's what you do in this league. You split with the good teams. I'm happy with that. It's a nice accomplishment for us. The players need to feel good about it, too."

Isn't it hard to feel good about anything after losing seven of 10 games?

"Maybe," Williams said. "But what you hope is that the mentality of the team changes with the regular season ending and postseason beginning. You hope the new set of circumstances re-energizes them."

Something needs to change. The Terps have fallen into a rut, particularly on offense. Teams have figured out that they can throw the Terps into disarray if they stop Keith Booth, the Terps' leading scorer.

Stopping Booth isn't that tough given that he is an undersized forward giving away height. And the other players haven't stepped up consistently to support Booth.

Profit led the Terps with 24 points yesterday and did most of the damage in the run that built a 10-point lead, but he was no factor as Virginia rallied.

Profit, the team's second-best player, has to become more consistent.

It's just one of the many things that has to start going right again.

The Terps have had a fine season, but they're not playing like a ranked team these days.

They're playing like a team that isn't going to last long in the postseason.

A team that used to know how to win, but forgot.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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