Ekezie takes center stage against Illini Big man looms large in Maryland's plans for undersized Illinois

Script gave Purdue 3 wins

Out-rebounded 2-1, Illini still won 1st round

March 14, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Illinois has won 12 of its past 14 basketball games. Both losses were to Purdue, which knocked off the Fighting Illini not just twice, but three times this winter because Illinois was unable to match up with the Boilermakers and Brad Miller.

Miller stands 6 feet 11, 240 pounds. Hmmm. Does Maryland have anybody like that?

The fourth-seeded Terps' biggest edge over the fifth-seeded Fighting Illini in their second-round West Regional game in the NCAA tournament at the Arco Arena today (4: 30 p.m., Ch. 13) is at center, where Obinna Ekezie appears more confident and capable with each game.

If the 6-foot-10, 256-pound junior from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, can do to Jarrod Gee what Purdue's Miller did, Maryland could find itself in the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years. The winner will move on to Anaheim on Thursday, and a third-round game against either defending champion Arizona or Illinois State.

Illinois won a share of the Big Ten championship despite being a doughnut team -- one without a center.

Gee, 6-8 and 240, is introduced as a center but listed as a forward and when asked to describe his position, he answered, "player."

"However you say his name [Ekezie], he's bigger, stronger and he has the height advantage," Gee said. "I've just got to stay low, not play timid."

That's routine for Illinois, which has seen a starting lineup of Gee and four other seniors surpass expectations with an underdog mentality and some fine play on the perimeter.

How do you figure a team that was out-rebounded 32-16 in the first round, and still beat South Alabama, 64-51?

Like the Terps, the Fighting Illini had a checkered nonconference season. Just as Maryland lost Keith Booth, Illinois had to replace Kiwane Garris. It began 1998 with an 8-5 record, before a veteran team came together in conference play.

Just as Maryland couldn't deal with Duke, however, Illinois had a nemesis in Purdue. Three of Illinois' last four losses were to the Boilermakers, and Miller averaged 17.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in those meetings.

Ekezie, who didn't come out of a prolonged shooting slump in the Atlantic Coast Conference until late February, has scored in double figures in 10 of Maryland's last 11 games.

The Terps are allowing him the space he needs to operate, he's become tougher to double-team, and when he has been, Maryland's three-point shooters have been delivering.

Sarunas Jasikevicius, the Terps' senior guard, has made 50 percent (13 of 26) of his three-pointers in Maryland's last four games.

"We've always emphasized the inside-out game," Jasikevicius said. "We're going to need even more emphasis on it against Illinois."

The Terps will try to pound the ball in not just to Ekezie, but to power forward Rodney Elliott, who'll have 2 inches and 13 pounds on Brian Johnson, but it might not be easy getting there.

In Big Ten games, the Fighting Illini led in scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense and three-point percentage defense, and they are renowned for their rough-and-tumble work from the perimeter in.

Just ask South Alabama, a team that is supposed to be adept with its patience and patterns, but had 20 turnovers in Thursday's first-round loss.

If Maryland coach Gary Williams' comparisons continue to ring true, meanwhile, the Terps have other concerns.

Williams said that Utah State guard Marcus Saxon reminded him of Rod Strickland, and that the Aggies were reminiscent of North Carolina State. Saxon was great, and the Terps handled Utah State as easily as they did the Wolfpack.

As far as Illinois, he likened their attack to that of Wake Forest, the NIT participant that swept Maryland.

The Fighting Illini launch nearly 18 three-pointers per game. Kevin Turner, the two guard, was the third-leading scorer in the Big Ten, with a 17.9 average. Jerry Hester, the forward who matches up with Laron Profit, averages 14.7, and point guard Matt Heldman averages 10.9 points and 4.0 assists per game.

Maryland point guard Terrell Stokes, meanwhile, is coming off a so-so Utah State game: He had fewer assists (three) than he did turnovers (four) for the first time since a Dec. 4 loss at Clemson.

The assist slack was picked up by Profit and Jasikevicius, who combined for 13 while funneling the ball to Elliott and Ekezie.

That part of the plan won't change against Illinois.

Terps today Who: Maryland (20-10) vs. Illinois (23-9)

What: NCAA tournament West Regional, second round

Where: Sacramento, Calif.

When: 4: 30 p.m. TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 5

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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