This time, no 1st-round knockout

March 13, 1998|By John Eisenberg

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It was an easy ride through the first round. Remember those?

The Maryland Terrapins finally did what they were supposed to do in their NCAA tournament opener.

They beat up a team that wasn't as good.

They bored a neutral crowd that was itching to cheer a lower seed to an upset.

They played up to their Atlantic Coast Conference pedigree.

So this is what that looks like.

The Terps were so much bigger and better than Utah State yesterday at the Arco Arena that it was almost impossible for them to lose.

Just like it was almost impossible for them to lose to Santa Clara two years ago and College of Charleston last year, right?

The memory of those first-round losses was a tougher opponent than Utah State, even though the Aggies played hard.

Those losses made this not just the season's biggest game for the Terps, but the season's only game.

Playing North Carolina, Duke and Kansas was fine and fun and all that, but this was the game that would write the season's legacy. In the end, there was only one question: Did they win their first-round game or not?

The Terps didn't have to play well, win big or make a statement. They just had to win, one way or another.

"We knew people would be telling jokes about us if we didn't," Terps guard Sarunas Jasikevicius said.

Those aren't the easiest of circumstances, and the Terps succumbed for a while in the first half. After taking an 18-7 lead, they relaxed and gave up 19 of the next 24 points. The Aggies were up three, the crowd was making noise and it was all starting to look familiar.

But this is a far different Maryland team from the ones that lost to Santa Clara and Charleston.

"This team is so much more confident," center Obinna Ekezie said. "We have accomplished a lot this season, beaten North Carolina and Kansas. We expect to win in a situation like this. I don't think that the [past two] teams expected to win in the same way. Maybe that's why we lost."

This time, instead of panicking when they fell behind, the Terps gathered themselves and took off on a decisive run. Jasikevicius hit three three-pointers, Elliott hit a fourth and the Terps pulled ahead by eight points at halftime.

The locker-room scene was far different from last year's, when the Terps were tied with College of Charleston after 20 minutes.

"I'll never forget it. We did a lot of loud talking and yelling at each other about who wasn't doing what and why we weren't winning and all that," Laron Profit said. "We learned that talk is cheap, real cheap."

This time, coach Gary Williams told them not to forget to take advantage of their size when play resumed. That's precisely what they did.

With the Aggies too small to defend Ekezie or Elliott, the Terps pounded the ball inside and let their big men put the game out of reach.

Less than five minutes into the second half, the margin was up to 15 points and the crowd was waiting for the next game to start.

The Terps were bor-ring. Just how you want it in the first round.

At last.

The Terps did get sloppy in the last 10 minutes, resulting in a 40-minute total of 19 turnovers, but it didn't matter. The Aggies just weren't dangerous enough. They seldom got second shots because of the Terps' inside domination, and they didn't have nearly enough scoring outside of point guard Marcus Saxon.

"Saxon is a great player," Williams said, "but I don't think at this level, the NCAA tournament, that one guy is going to beat you too often."

Saxon had 18 points in the first half, just seven in the second. Other than a three-pointer in the final seconds, he didn't make a basket in the last 16 minutes.

The Terps didn't exult or celebrate when the final buzzer sounded. They just looked relieved to have done what they were supposed to do.

"It was on our minds, obviously," Profit said.

At first, Williams was defensive when a reporter suggested that it was important for his team to get past the first round at last.

"In three years out of five, we've gotten past the first round," Williams said. "That's pretty good. Sixty percent. A lot of teams would take that."

He softened his tone a few minutes later. He knew it was big.

"Yeah, there was some nervousness out there," he said. "As it is, there's probably more pressure in the first round than in any round except the Final Four. And we had some things to deal with, for sure. But that's part of college basketball. Every team always has certain things to overcome."

The Terps have overcome their biggest mental obstacle, an ignominious NCAA past.

Their next opponent is Illinois, a smallish, senior-laden team that the Terps probably should beat.

"I like to think that we can relax now and be ourselves a little more," Jasikevicius said.

They're one win away from the Sweet 16 in this tournament that makes and breaks you in a hurry.

But no matter what happens, the Terps now have met their minimum goal for the tournament and the season. Their first-round NCAA game? Piece of cake.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.