Pack up excuses, Terps can't cry wolf now

March 08, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- They're going to win today. They've got to win today. All it took was four hours to revive Maryland's seemingly lost season. The Terps can't blow this opportunity now.

Beat North Carolina State, and they will reach the ACC tournament final for the first time since 1984. Beat North Carolina State, and they will secure at least a No. 4 seed in an NCAA regional.

Beat North Carolina State?

Maryland already has done it twice, first by 11 points, then by nine. Let's not hear how difficult it is to beat a team three times in a season. And let's not hear how N.C. State is suddenly on a roll after stunning top-seeded Duke.

Entering this tournament, which team would the Terps have rather faced in the semifinals, the one with a 13-13 record or the one ranked No. 7 in the country?

You can argue that yesterday altered the equation -- just consider Obinna Ekezie, Terrell Stokes and the rest of a Maryland team that regained its January form in a 15-point trouncing of Clemson.

But seriously, how much does N.C. State have left?

The Wolfpack had to defeat Georgia Tech in Thursday night's play-in, then rally from a 14-point second-half deficit to beat Duke yesterday. It was a stirring, emotional victory -- the kind that often leaves teams drained.

First-year coach Herb Sendek is basically down to five players. Maryland isn't much deeper, and coach Gary Williams now admits that his team tired down the stretch. Still, it's N.C. State that will be playing its third game in three days.

Asked about potential fatigue at the post-game news conference, Sendek jokingly tried to duck the question.

"Is that for C. C.?" he asked, pointing to C. C. Harrison.

"You, Coach," Harrison replied.

Alas, what could Sendek say?

"It's important we get off our legs, replenish our fluids and come back as rested as possible," he said. "Any complications with Xs are Os are nice, but if you don't have strong legs and feel good, that's entirely secondary."

His players, flush with the excitement of victory, seemed far less concerned, speaking with predictable bravado.

"We're a hungry team. We're hungry for respect," Jeremy Hyatt said. "I feel we'll come out tomorrow just as we came out today."

Added Danny Strong: "We still have a lot more left."

For Maryland, the scary part is that N.C. State has won six of its last eight games, including an overtime victory at Wake Forest, a 21-point rout of Georgia Tech and a 23-point trouncing of Florida State.

Its two defeats in that stretch?

A nine-point loss to Virginia and a one-point loss to North Carolina.

"You have to take advantage," Williams said, referring to Duke's elimination. "But I don't know if playing North Carolina State right now is an advantage. They're pretty good. It's not a fluke, what they did today."

But c'mon, Gary, three games in three days?

"That's hard," Williams said. "Let's face it, you look for any edge you can get this time of year."

Actually, when Maryland plays as well as it did yesterday, the opponent doesn't matter. The Terps' 76-61 victory over No. 13 Clemson was their first over a ranked team since Jan. 26. Their 3-7 slump entering the tournament? Never happened.

Ekezie played his best game at Maryland, scoring 20 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking three shots. Stokes also played perhaps his best game as a Terp, scoring a career-high 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting, with no turnovers in 35 minutes.

The two sophomores were Maryland's biggest questions entering the tournament, but if yesterday didn't restore their confidence, nothing will. Williams, too, regained his touch, taking Stokes off Terrell McIntyre, and using the bigger Matt Kovarik and Sarunas Jasikevicius to shut down the Clemson point guard.

The Terps barely even bothered defending Clemson's inside players, which is one reason Ekezie committed only two fouls. N.C. State presents more difficult matchup problems. Sendek is using a four-guard lineup now that center Damon Thornton is out for the season. Ekezie is more likely to get into foul trouble chasing a smaller opponent.

LTC Oh, you can paint a doomsday scenario -- Harrison scored 28 points yesterday, and the last time these teams met, he was limited by an ankle injury. Still, what are we talking about here? N.C. State is N.C. State. And lest we forget, it was only six weeks ago that the Terps were ranked fifth in the country.

A loss yesterday, and they probably would have drawn a No. 5 seed in the NCAAs, and possibly even a No. 6. But now they're in position to earn a No. 3 -- a virtual certainty if they win the tournament, and a possibility even if they play competitively against Wake Forest or North Carolina in the final.

They're going to get there.

They've got to get there.

A chance like this, how can they blow it?

Pub Date: 3/08/97

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