Terps seniors, half-court attack not top of line

January 04, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK — It wasn't the officials. The frustrated fans at Cole Field House howled all day about bad calls, but it's never the officials in an 18-point game.

Nor was it Duke's brilliance. The Blue Devils' defense was strong, limiting Steve Francis to one point in the second half, but they also shot their lowest percentage of the season from the field and finished with more turnovers than assists. They were beatable.

So why didn't the Maryland Terrapins win yesterday? What was at the root of their horrid, 82-64 loss?

"Lots of things," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "You can't point to just one."

OK, we'll point to two. For the second big game in a row, the Terps' seniors didn't deliver. And overall, the Terps' half-court offense wasn't of the caliber needed to beat such a quality opponent.

Unless they're corrected, both problems could wreck the Terps' season of high hopes.

Oh, sure, they're still on track for a big year. One bad loss in early January won't change that.

But they know now they aren't good enough to beat the best. If there's a positive component to yesterday's loss, that's it. At least the Terps know that what they have now isn't enough, that no matter how many big wins they stack up in the coming weeks, they'll still end the season where they always end it -- watching Duke on TV -- unless they make major improvements.

In the wake of 82-64, it's clear where those improvements must come.

The Terps' three senior starters -- forward Laron Profit, center Obinna Ekezie and guard Terrell Stokes -- combined for 24 points yesterday, five below their season average, with 16 misses in 25 shots and two assists to 11 turnovers.

Williams, who is normally highly protective of his players in public, singled them out when asked if Francis' first poor game had decided the outcome.

"It's not fair to put it on a new player who has played 13 college games," Williams said. "Laron was a first-team preseason All-ACC pick. Terrell is a senior who has played a lot of good games. Obinna has played in a couple of Sweet 16s."

In other words, they didn't play like seniors yesterday. Not even close.

Nor did they play like seniors in the Terps' other loss this season, at Kentucky. That night, the Wildcats' three senior starters scored 73 points and the Terps' threesome scored 33.

The trend is disturbing, to say the least. Your most experienced players are supposed to build up to big games, not let down in them. Profit, in particular, is giving cause for concern. He scored no points in the second half against Kentucky and only four in the second half yesterday. That's way too erratic.

"This was a game where we were looking for someone to go out and show us the way," Williams said yesterday. "We were looking for someone to step up. They didn't have to score or do anything like that."

Just lead. Do something special. Anything.

The seniors didn't.

"Everyone is going to look at the seniors as the people who should have stepped up," Profit said. "And we probably should have. But I give credit to Duke. They played a great game."

Well, a pretty good game. Let's not get carried away. The Blue Devils' defense was better than their offense. That was enough to win.

Enough to beat a team with a half-court offense that is, well, let's face it, pretty shaky.

The Terps are at their best when their pressure defense creates turnovers and they score on fast breaks and the game assumes an upbeat tempo. But when an opponent handles their pressure and the Terps are forced to slow down, set up plays and score, they struggle.

Maybe not against North Texas. Maybe not against Wake Forest.

Maybe not against anyone other than Duke and a few other top teams.

But that's whom the Terps have to beat if they're going to make this season special.

There's no doubt now, is there? In the wake of 82-64, the Terps clearly have to spend the next two months learning to run a half-court offense effectively enough to challenge Duke. The current edition has resulted in three straight losses by 32, 27 and 18 points. It's just not good enough.

Call it one of Williams' biggest challenges in his decade at Maryland. He has done so much to bring the program to a high level with his up-tempo style, but now he has to emphasize a phase of the game in which his team isn't comfortable. And the fate of his best Maryland team could be at stake.

"It's my responsibility to see that we run a good offense," he said. "We didn't in this game."

That's for sure. The Terps were impatient, settling for forced jumpers instead of working the ball inside. Their cuts weren't clean or decisive. They spent a lot of time standing around and watching. And they tried too many low-percentage passes.

In other words, Williams has his work cut out for him, particularly because Stokes, his offensive quarterback, isn't particularly creative.

It could be time to move Francis to the point, where he belongs.

"No matter what, we have to keep working on the offense until it becomes instinctive," Ekezie said. "We aren't there yet. It's still early. But we have to keep working until it becomes our second nature."

It isn't yet. And the Terps have a big, fat, ugly loss to Duke to show for it.

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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