Some pain, no shame in Rupp loss

December 13, 1998|By John Eisenberg

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Let's get this straight: The Maryland Terrapins lost last night to a motivated Kentucky team playing brilliantly and at home. There's no disgrace in that.

Yes, the Terps showed real flaws for the first time this season. Their press was ineffectual and their reactions were slow at times; Kentucky repeatedly beat them downcourt for baskets. They were impatient against a defense that refused to grant access to the lane. And they were outrebounded for the third straight game, a disturbing pattern.

The Terps were beaten soundly at Rupp Arena. Their No. 2 national ranking will evaporate tomorrow.

But just as it was necessary to keep their 10-0 start in perspective, it's necessary to keep their first loss in perspective. They were on the road against a team that's won two of the past three national championships and 11 straight games against ranked opponents. The chances of a Maryland loss were better than the chances of a Maryland win.

Besides, it was a major-league game all the way. Missing the NBA? This was closest you'll get to it during the lockout. The pace and the plays were breathtaking. Kentucky had to shoot 54 percent from the field -- seven points above their season percentage -- to win.

"Everything was challenged; every shot, every pass," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.

The loss disappointed the Terps, but what they really needed for their long-range purposes wasn't a win, as much as they wanted one.

What they needed was to compete well at this highest of levels, to play without fear, to avoid getting intimidated and shattered as they have in the past against top teams.

What they needed was to go down gallantly at the very least, as a team of Final Four caliber would in these daunting circumstances.

Did they? In the end, yes. They fell apart in the last six minutes of the first half and paid for it the rest of the game. They weren't the better team by any means.

But they stabilized in the second half and cut a 17-point lead to four in the final minute. It took a career night from Kentucky's Heshimu Evans to keep the Wildcats safely ahead.

"I'm glad we played them here," Smith said.

Yes, it's still a loss in the final reckoning, a loss with disturbing parts to it. Maryland's Laron Profit disappeared again, failing to score in the second half. Kentucky dominated the middle with nine blocks. Kentucky's seniors scored 73 points to Maryland's seniors' 33 points. Ouch.

"Kentucky was ready to go," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "Hopefully, we will learn the effort that's necessary to win games in these kinds of situations."

In other words, Williams wanted the win, but he didn't mind the loss. He'll take what it illustrates: That as good as the Terps are, they can do better.

But hey, the Terps weren't going to go undefeated. And if you have to lose, it's no crime to lose in front of 23,000 fans roaring for your heads, on a night when the Wildcats clearly felt threatened by the highest-ranked opponent to play in Rupp Arena in 19 years.

"They're an all right team, but they aren't the University of Kentucky," Wildcats center Jamal Magliore said Friday of the Terps, who were coming in with a higher ranking in the polls and more national hype courtesy of Dick Vitale's nonstop gushing and a spread in Sports Illustrated.

Kentucky fans were curious, no doubt; some seeking tickets stood in a chilling rain in front of the arena before noon yesterday -- nine hours before tipoff.

And then, killing time in the lobby of a hotel adjacent to the arena, a group of Maryland fans dressed in red togas -- we kid you not -- chanted beery salutes to the Terps.

To which an elderly Kentucky fan shouted: "You're not even in the big time yet! You don't even know what it's all about!"

L Just another night in the regal life of Kentucky basketball.

Not that the Terps were strangers to this kind of over-the-top hysteria. They play at Duke and North Carolina every year. They know.

But when you play Kentucky at home on a cold, wet December night, you feel the will of an entire state pushing against you.

Think of the noise and emotion of a game at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium and blend it with the intimidating tradition and state-school power that emanates at Carolina's Smith Center, and that was the challenge of playing Kentucky last night

Whether the Terps would crumble in that setting was the issue. Win or lose.

As much as they have accomplished in recent years, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of of the past five NCAA tournaments, the Terps usually have blinked when it really matters.

At Duke. At Carolina. Against Arizona in the Sweet 16 last year. XTC They played scared in those games, forgetting to run their

offense and slipping out of their usual rhythm.

The conclusion, unavoidably, was that they were over their heads in that company. A second-tier power. A pretender of a contender.

They were anything but scared in the first 13 minutes last night, leading at times and tying the Wildcats at 33 on a jumper by Obinna Ekezie.

But Kentucky scored 21 of the last 29 points of the half to take a 54-41 lead, keying the sequence with a hectic fast break that beat the Terps downcourt.

The result was a big lead that the Terps chewed away at for the rest of the game, to no avail. Kentucky was just too good on this night.

But given the setting and the circumstances, there was no shame in losing.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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