At crunch time, Ekezie poetry in motion

March 15, 1998|By John Eisenberg

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Just the season on the line. That's all.

"I told myself, 'Don't think about that. That'll make you crazy,' " Obinna Ekezie said yesterday.

A trip to the Sweet 16. A shot at Arizona. A chance to dream big dreams.

That's all that was on the line for the Maryland Terrapins when Ekezie stepped to the free throw in the final minutes of a second-round NCAA tournament game against Illinois yesterday

at the Arco Arena.

"I told myself: 'You aren't here, Obinna. You're back at practice, you're in the gym, no one is around, just make these free throws,' " Ekezie said.

He played a trick on himself, that's what he did. And did it ever work.

The Terps' 6-foot-10, 260-pound center from Nigeria made six straight free throws in the final 118 seconds, pushing the Terps to a 67-61 victory and their third trip to the Sweet 16 in five years.

It was a moment of sheer poetry for the Terps -- not "Casey at the Bat," but "Ekezie at the Line."

The Terps blew a 13-point lead, trailed briefly late in the second half and were tied in the final minute, but "Ekezie at the Line"

ended with a home run instead of a strikeout.

"At this time of year, you just do whatever it takes," Terps coach Gary Williams said.

That it would take Ekezie free throws to get the Terps to the Sweet 16 was a long-odds proposition, to say the least.

You would think Laron Profit's jumpers, Sarunas Jasikevicius' three-pointers or Rodney Elliott's put-backs might carry them to the tournament's second weekend, but Ekezie's free-throw shooting?

"Unbelievable, that's all I can say," Profit said.

"I just thank God they all went in," Ekezie said with a smile.

Not that he is so terrible from the line; he has made 67 percent of his attempts this year, almost exactly the team average.

As with many parts of his game, his free-throw shooting has come a long way in a hurry.

"The first time I saw him play, I wanted to throw up," Profit said. "We were teammates on an AAU team one summer [in high school]. He weighed 320 pounds and couldn't get over halfcourt. His free throw shooting? Oh, man. To go from then to where he is now, it's almost like he's a different person."

Ekezie shot 55 percent from the line as a freshman, 64 percent as a sophomore and improved again this year after changing his mechanics last summer. On the advice of the Wizards' Chris Webber and former Maryland star Tony Massenburg, with whom Ekezie often played and worked out over the summer, he moved his left hand from on top of the ball to the side, framing the shot better.

"I try to do the same thing every time," Ekezie said. "Five dribbles, frame the ball, shoot. Having a routine has helped."

He still has rough moments at the line, such as a 3-for-7 night against Georgia Tech last month, and he certainly doesn't inspire confidence with his giant hands dwarfing the ball as he prepares to shoot. But overall, he is more proficient than he looks at the line.

Not that the Terps were feeling cocky when he stepped to the line yesterday with 1: 58 left and Maryland up by a point, 57-56.

He had hardly touched the ball all day thanks to a sagging Illinois defense that concentrated on denying entry passes to Ekezie and Elliott.

"I don't know if it was their defense being so good or us just not working hard enough to get [the ball] inside," Ekezie said, "but I wasn't in the flow."

That's an understatement. He probably hadn't touched the ball a dozen times all day.

"You don't know how hard it is to shoot free throws when you haven't touched the ball," Jasikevicius said.

"You're not comfortable, you're not in a rhythm. It was a tough spot for Obinna."

Ekezie's first free throw caught the rim and dropped through. The second swished.

You could almost hear the Terps exhaling on their bench.

"I think we all felt a little better after those first two," Williams said.

But then Ekezie was back on the line in an even tougher spot, with 35.2 seconds remaining and the score tied at 61. Illinois coach Lon Kruger called a timeout to give Ekezie time to think about the shot.

"I'm just telling myself not to think about the context of these free throws, just go blank in your mind and step up and shoot," Ekezie said.

No problem.

Swish. Swish.

After Illinois' Kevin Turner missed a jumper that would have tied the score, Ekezie was fouled on the rebound and sent to the line yet again.

There were 15.2 seconds left. The game was in his hands. The season was in his hands.

Two more swishes.

Pandemonium on the Terps' bench.

"The thing you have to know about Obinna is he loves being the one in that position," Williams said.

"He hasn't played this game that long, but he wouldn't want anyone else up there shooting those free throws."


"It's the position you put yourself in when you're a kid playing in the backyard," Ekezie said. "It's always, 'Game tied, one second left, you're at the line.' I have imagined being in that position

many times."

Was it different than he imagined when it came true yesterday?

"Oh, it's the same," he said. "The only difference in the backyard is that I didn't have all these reporters talking to me after I made the shots."

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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