Terps work hard, make it look easy

March 01, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

Two years ago, they were a team of seniors resting on laurels acquired mostly by the departed Joe Smith.

Last year, they were a team of tired overachievers, having peaked in late January.

This year, for the first time since Smith was at center, the Maryland Terrapins are on the rise, unmistakably, as March begins.

"Do you like your team?" coach Gary Williams was asked after the Terps' 83-66 victory over Temple yesterday before a sellout crowd at the Baltimore Arena.

"Oh, absolutely," Williams said with a conviction that wasn't there the past two years.

Coaches always have to say they like their teams, of course, and they usually almost mean it after a big win over a ranked opponent, which the Terps delivered yesterday with their best performance of the season outside of their upset of North Carolina.

But not even a loss yesterday would have cooled Williams' affection for this team.

"What I really like," Williams said, "is that we have continued to improve all year."

Bingo! That's the difference between this year's team and the prior two, each of which lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

This year's Terps didn't get satisfied, lazy, selfish or tired as January turned to February turned to March.

This year's Terps just kept getting better.

Since falling to 0-2 in the ACC and 7-5 overall with an embarrassing home loss to Duke on Jan. 3, they have won 11 of 15 games to finish the regular season at 18-9, with a solid lock on third place in the ACC.

Two of the four losses were to an inferior Wake Forest team, a sign that the Terps still are prone to immaturity at times. That's why they're capable of losing their NCAA opener -- yes, again -- if they're not careful.

But the chances of them surviving and advancing into the draw (( are much better than in the past two years.

"Each team develops differently, and sometimes you can't call it beforehand," Williams said. "This team, you have to love the way they have worked. They deserve for good things to happen to them."

If you're looking for a metaphor for the whole team, try Baltimore's Rodney Elliott, who put what he called "a storybook ending" on his career yesterday with a 20-point, 17-rebound performance in front of a hometown crowd.

He wasn't at the top of any recruiting lists coming out of Dunbar. Some friends even told him not to go to Maryland because he wouldn't get to play much. But he worked on his game, gained weight and became a formidable player.

"Just because a player isn't a big recruit who can play immediately," Williams said, "doesn't mean he isn't going to be a good player in two years."

Many of Elliott's teammates weren't heavily recruited, either: Terrell Stokes, Laron Profit and Terrence Morris were big-name recruits, but Sarunas Jasikevicius, Obinna Ekezie, Elliott, Mike Mardesich and Matt Kovarik weren't.

Yet they still have improved enough individually and come together as a team to the point that they might draw a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

What coach wouldn't fall in love at least a little?

"They get mad at me, I get mad at them and they get mad at each other at different points," Williams said. "But when it's all said and done, they're together and they want to win."

If they could bottle how they played yesterday and uncork it in a few weeks, they could breeze to the Sweet 16. Temple had won seven games in a row playing its usual, wonderful defense, and the Terps still won easily. They found the open man, shot well, forced turnovers with their pressure, won a lot of the loose balls -- did everything right, basically.

They hit eight three-pointers in the first half and shot 56.5 percent from the field in the second half, shredding a Temple zone defense as feared as any in the country.

After struggling for almost every win all season, they have won their past three games by 12, eight and 17 points, evidence of a developing killer instinct. Yesterday, they wiped out a team no one is going to want to play in the NCAA.

Not bad, folks. And not at a bad time, either.

Granted, Temple has a huge conference game today against Massachusetts, so the Owls probably weren't too focused yesterday. And the pro-Maryland atmosphere in the Arena certainly helped the Terps. So let's not read too much into this.

But they have come a long, long way from that awful Duke loss.

"Last year? I don't even want to talk about last year," Elliott said as he dressed and prepared to plunge into a corridor packed with well-wishers. "We have stayed together more this year. But mostly we have just kept working hard and getting better. It makes me proud. But there's still more to do."

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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