Terps toe line for size 16 Four straight 1-and-1s shoot Maryland past Illini, 67-61, to Sweet 16

Champ Arizona looms next

Defense, 'adjustments' spur inside-out victory

March 15, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Big man Obinna Ekezie foundered in a sea of orange and blue for most of the afternoon. Terrell Stokes, who isn't supposed to shoot, had more points than Laron Profit, the forward with the best scoring average. A team that works its offense from the inside out went 21 minutes without attempting a free throw.

So how in the Sweet 16 did Maryland beat Illinois, 67-61, at Arco Arena yesterday, to survive the second round of the NCAA tournament and move on to the West Regional semifinals?

"Adjust," coach Gary Williams said. "That's what the good teams do this time of year. They make adjustments."

A very good team for most of the last two months, the No. 20 Terps will venture into the land of greatness Thursday, when they'll meet defending national champion Arizona in the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. Two more wins there, and Maryland would be in its first Final Four.

The fourth-seeded Terps (21-10) are in the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years, and the formula was, as senior forward Rodney Elliott put it, "never this wacky."

Fifth-seeded Illinois (23-10) concentrated its defense on Ekezie, and the Terps' junior center had about two touches in the first half. He got his only basket in the 34th minute, then nailed six straight free throws, all in the bonus situation, in the final two minutes to quell a comeback by the Fighting Illini during which Maryland went from up 43-32 to down 52-49.

The Terps won by taking extremely good care of the ball, committing a season-low four turnovers against the best defense in the Big Ten. They won at the free-throw line, where they made a season-high 84.6 percent (11 of 13).

Maryland won with Stokes, its junior point guard, saying, yes, I can score and getting 10 points, double his average. It won with performances from Elliott (16 points, nine rebounds) and Sarunas Jasikevicius (game-high 20 points) that have become standard, the kind that have stamped NBA draft selection on their foreheads.

The Terps won with defense. Illinois clawed back with some second-chance baskets, but for 27 minutes the Fighting Illini were clueless against the 3-2 zone and the man-to-man. Jasikevicius clamped down early on Kevin Turner and limited the third-leading scorer in the Big Ten to 10 points.

Had Elliott ever seen Maryland carry out a defensive game plan like it did for most of yesterday?

"Uh, yeah," the senior forward from Dunbar High said. "How about against Utah State?"

Maryland's first-round victim made 39.0 percent of its field-goal attempts. No opponent has made better than 50 percent of its shots against the Terps since Duke undressed them by 32 points, and who in Cole Field House that dark Jan. 3 night thought Maryland would still be playing the third week in March?

"We're still playing, and everyone's playing great, contributing," Elliott said. "I always had confidence that we could do this."

The confidence meter for Ekezie was off the chart at the end. Scoreless for nearly 34 minutes, he released some frustration by backing in for his only basket with 6: 07 left, and Michael Jordan himself never looked this cool stepping to the free-throw line with a season in the balance.

Illinois, the co-champ in the Big Ten, was within 57-56 on a put-back by center Jarrod Gee with 2: 22 left. Ekezie missed inside, got the rebound and was stopped by a host of tacklers. He rolled in two free throws for a 59-56 lead, but Illinois tied it on a Turner three.

Jasikevicius' foul-line jumper was canceled by another basket by Gee. With 35.2 seconds remaining, the Fighting Illini fouled Ekezie again. Coach Lon Kruger tried to ice him with a 20-second timeout, to no avail. Ekezie made both, and after Turner missed a pull-up jumper, Ekezie came through again with 15.6 seconds left.

"I know they were big free throws, but I didn't think of them in that context," Ekezie said. "I didn't think about the implications."

Ekezie wasn't the only Maryland player to assert himself after Illinois used a 20-6 run to wipe out a 12-point deficit with 15: 57 remaining and take its only lead at 52-49 on Turner's three from the right wing with 7: 03 left.

Dared to shoot all day by a collapsing defense, Stokes dribbled to the left of the key and tied it with his second three of the day. Ekezie scored his lonesome basket, and after Turner scored, Jasikevicius made his fourth three-pointer in as many tries, with 3: 55 left.

The Terps didn't score another basket, but they didn't have to. Ekezie, a 68.7 percent foul shooter, delivered. So did backup point guard Matt Kovarik, a 38.5 percent shooter from the line who knocked down two with 7.2 seconds remaining.

Jasikevicius made three shots beyond the arc in the first five minutes, the last of which triggered a 10-0 run that allowed Maryland to take a 22-10 lead. The gap got as large as 13 at 28-15, and it was still 43-32 with 13: 52 left, when freshman Terence Morris fed Elliott for a basket.

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