Terps start from West on March Maryland hopes past NCAA misery won't be prologue

Utah State brings emotion

Great expectations await in regional

March 12, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It's only the biggest game of their lives.

The two freshmen have knocked off Kansas and North Carolina, but that was in December and January. The three juniors have won in Chapel Hill, N.C., and beaten Tim Duncan on his floor, but that was in the dark of winter, too. The three seniors have been to the Sweet 16, but that was Joe Smith's show.

This is March. This is different. This is scenery the Terps haven't enjoyed lately.

Utah State hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in a decade. Maryland feels as if it has been that long since it has had to answer questions about its recent postseason shortcomings. The two meet today (2: 42 p.m., Ch. 13) in a first-round game in the West Region, the Aggies with nothing to lose and the Terps with plenty to win.

Maryland is in the NCAA field for a school-record fifth straight season. That run began with two appearances in the Sweet 16, one less than the program had previously achieved in its history, but the past two seasons ended with listless upset losses, and the lousy finishes have detracted from one of the strongest runs ever at Maryland.

"If we've learned anything, it's that you can't underestimate anyone," said Rodney Elliott, a senior forward from Dunbar High who has taken it upon himself to keep his teammates focused. "We've reflected on what's happened in the past, but we've got to live in the now."

Gary Williams said in the preseason that last season's NCAA loss to the College of Charleston was one of the worst of his 20-year coaching career. Should the Terps fulfill their No. 4 seed today, he isn't going to do a Dale Earnhardt and spike a stuffed monkey, but questions about the past two NCAA tournaments have gotten on his back.

"We haven't played well in the NCAAs the last two years," Williams said. "We want to play well. The big thing right now is assert ourselves."

Today's challenge is a strange one, as Utah State, the No. 13 seed, got here with a three-guard lineup that is small even by Big West Conference standards.

One day last winter Maryland center Obinna Ekezie said he played better against people his own size, and Williams better hope that's still not the case. Ekezie is 6 feet 10, 256 pounds. Utah State starts Donnie Johnson, 6-6 and 217, at the pivot.

If this game is about emotion, the Aggies bring plenty. Williams has the reputation for being hard on his players, but Aggies coach Larry Eustachy didn't curb his vulgarities during yesterday's open practice sessions at the Arco Arena. How abrasive does he get when fans and media aren't around?

"He's much more vocal and demanding," said Marcus Saxon, the ace point guard whose penetration Maryland must stop. "Today, he played it pretty low key. He didn't curse as much, or yell at us as much as he usually does. When nobody's around, people usually end up getting hurt."

Saxon and his teammates have been the ones inflicting pain lately. So have the Terps, who were 7-5 after a Jan. 3 loss to Duke, but have gone 12-5 since. Maryland has had only one losing streak in that run, and that stopped at two games, as the team has rebounded well after all but one of its losses.

"This time of season, it's all about how you're playing, and I think we're playing well," Elliott said. "That wasn't the case the last two years [in the NCAAs]."

Rather than being viewed as candidate for another upset, Williams, Elliott and company are dealing with great expectations. A columnist in the Sacramento Bee yesterday had them beating Arizona in Anaheim, Calif., next week and going to the Final Four. That's not a solo opinion.

Only once this season have the Terps won four games in a row. That streak ended last Saturday, when Maryland saw a run at its first ACC tournament final in 14 years stopped by No. 1 North Carolina. It cast a pall over Selection Sunday, but were there any benefits accrued from that overtime loss?

"Playing North Carolina well helped us, it re-established that we can play with that level of team," Williams said. "The thing about it, losing that game bothered us. There was no relaxation this week. If we would have beaten them, maybe we would have had a tendency to relax."

After the misery Maryland has brought upon itself the past two Marches, maybe not.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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