Terps catch 2nd wind, Clemson Down 11-2, Maryland blows by Tigers, 76-61, to reach ACC semis

Ekezie, Stokes regain form

Win boosts confidence after closing free fall

March 08, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- As the losses piled up and their collective confidence, not to mention their national ranking, began to free fall toward oblivion, the Maryland Terrapins looked this year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament as a time and place to revive their season.

But when yesterday's quarterfinal game against Clemson began the Greensboro Coliseum, it seemed as if the Terps were beyond resuscitation. In the first eight minutes, they missed eight of nine shots, committed seven turnovers and trailed by nine.

"We didn't have much confidence at the start of the game," Maryland coach Gary Williams said later. "But we started to play better and our confidence grew. We've been waiting a long time for something good to happen, and today it did."

It happened with an impressive 76-61 victory over the 13th-ranked Tigers, coming after the No. 22 Terrapins had closed the regular season with three straight defeats and seven losses in their last 10 games. It happened, in part, because fourth-seeded Clemson couldn't silence fifth-seeded Maryland early.

It happened, to a large extent, because sophomores Obinna Ekezie and Terrell Stokes played their best games in a long time, maybe the best of their college careers. And it happened because the Terps shut down a season-long nemesis, Clemson point guard Terrell McIntyre.

Ekezie, whose foul trouble had limited his playing time in two defeats to Clemson, led four Maryland players in double figures with 20 points -- one shy of the center's career high -- but also dominated inside with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Maryland out-rebounded Clemson 38-25.

Stokes, the point guard whose recent slump was a concern to Williams, finished with a career-high 17 points, four assists and no turnovers. And McIntyre? He was barely a factor, with Maryland harassing him into a nine-point performance on 2-for-8 shooting.

The victory put Maryland (21-9) into today's first semifinal against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack became only the second eighth-seeded team in the 44-year history of the tournament to beat the top seed when it upset seventh-ranked Duke, 66-60.

"I thought N.C. State was playing very well coming in," said Williams, who won the 350th game of his 19-year coaching career. "I didn't know if they could beat Duke. It's the way the league has gone all year. I don't think our guys will be surprised because of all the upsets so far."

The Terps might have added one to the list yesterday. The Tigers were the only ACC team to sweep Maryland during the regular season. And when they took an 11-2 lead with 12: 14 left in the first half, most figured that Clemson (21-9) would win easily.

Maybe the Tigers believed that, too.

"I'm disappointed because we really had a chance early to get control of the game and we didn't," said Clemson coach Rick Barnes. "We didn't make our free throws, and we allowed them to control us inside. They took control of the paint."

The nine-point deficit could have been worse, except the Tigers missed a pair of two-shot free throws and their first four three-point tries. But the poor shooting only set a tone for the rest of the afternoon. Clemson hit only 13 of 23 free throws and six of 17 threes.

Conversely, Maryland's defense and Ekezie's dominance set the tone for the Terps. A 16-0 run gave Maryland a lead it would never lose. After their cold start shooting, the Terps would hit eight of their next 11 shots -- they wound up 22 of 45 overall -- including a three by Stokes for a 23-15 lead.

"We came out very nervous, but once we settled down, I knew we'd play better," said Stokes, who would wind up shooting six of eight from the field, including three of four on threes. "Our defense started picking up, and we began to play like we did earlier in the year."

Leading 31-25 at halftime, Maryland never backed down as the Tigers made several runs. When McIntyre hit his first basket of the game, was fouled and converted the three-point play to pull Clemson to 36-34, Ekezie did the same at the other end.

After seeing a pair of free throws by McIntyre cut his team's lead to 45-44, senior forward Keith Booth scored eight of his 19 points in an 11-0 run that helped give Maryland some room to breathe. And after the Tigers climbed back to 59-54, the Terps exhaled.

It turned into a blowout.

"The second half was probably the best 20 minutes we've played in a long time," said Williams, whose team also made 22 of 26 free throws in the second half, 28 of 33 for the game. "After they made their run, we played well with the lead. That's sometimes the hardest thing to do, especially in our situation, where we haven't won. We didn't stop working on defense."

The result was the largest margin of victory for the Terps against an ACC team since a 73-57 win over Florida State Feb. 13 in College Park. More importantly, it was the first victory for Maryland over a nationally ranked team since it beat Duke Jan. 26.

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