Ekezie ends healthy run for Terps

Injury terminates eight years of luck

adjustments start

Big hole left inside

But some see gains from underdog role

February 12, 1999|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

After Dion Glover, Georgia Tech's star sophomore, tore a knee ligament on the opening day of basketball practice last October, Maryland coach Gary Williams knocked on the conference table in his Cole Field House office.

When North Carolina State went through a horrible run of injuries last season, Williams counted his blessings.

For much of the last eight seasons, Williams and the Terps have enjoyed a healthy run in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

There were no serious injuries that disrupted his team. The good fortune extended beyond the trainer's room, as there were no academic dismissals to note, and only a rare early exit to the NBA, like Joe Smith's.

Williams' 10th Maryland team has accomplished much this winter, as only a handful of teams in the nation have more wins.

The Terps will take a 21-4 record and No. 7 ranking into tomorrow's home game against North Carolina, but they are also dealing with the worst adversity that has hit the program in years.

Senior center Obinna Ekezie underwent surgery yesterday, and his college career is over. The ruptured Achilles' tendon came at the end of a trying 10 days for the Terps.

"This has probably been the hardest two weeks of my life," said Terrell Stokes, no small statement considering he barely escaped the mean streets of Philadelphia to run the point for the Terps.

Stokes' grandmother died before Maryland went to Wake Forest, and he has spent an inordinate amount of time recently driving up and down I-95 to attend services and be with his family. He missed both practices before Maryland went to No. 1 Duke.

Stokes broke in a new starting center when Ekezie was benched for Lonny Baxter last Saturday, then held together a team that had gotten used to having a senior in the middle. Stokes said the Terps have to find new ways to win, and the first twist saw him score 14 points at N.C. State on Wednesday night.

Ekezie, Stokes and wing Laron Profit entered Maryland together in 1995, and with the big man in civvies, it will be a poignant Senior Day at Cole on Feb. 24 against Clemson.

Profit said he was "in shock" after Ekezie injured himself at practice Tuesday. Profit said he spent the next 24 hours thinking about the plight of Ekezie and the team, and how Maryland must remember that it just has to continue doing what it has done throughout his career -- not rely too heavily on any one player.

The Terps have four regular-season games remaining to adjust to Ekezie's absence, but they'll miss his presence inside. Getting him to the line was part of Maryland's game plan, and it went 19 minutes over the middle of the State game without a free throw.

Williams dipped deep into his bench, as Brian Watkins contributed 10 minutes. The 1996 transfer from Notre Dame is a dangerous perimeter shooter, but he has been held back by his defense and rebounding.

If 7-foot sophomore Mike Mardesich can avoid foul trouble, Williams might try an eight-man rotation against some teams.

Sophomore forward Terence Morris and the rest of the front line will be tested in the next two games. Both North Carolina and Georgia Tech sport twin-tower lineups, and the Tar Heels' tandem of Brendan Haywood and Kris Lang will try to attack the Terps. Maryland then faces Alvin Jones and Jason Collier in Atlanta on Feb. 21.

"Saturday [North Carolina] is big, then we have a week to work," Williams said. "That's when we can do some things. We can't do anything until after that. We can go smaller, sure, but that's not the way to go every game. There are going to be games when we're getting kicked on the boards."

The veterans and junior-college transfer Steve Francis began to talk last summer of bidding for Maryland's first NCAA title. Wednesday night, Profit disagreed with the suggestion that Ekezie's injury lessens the pressure on the Terps, but the fact is that the Terps can view themselves as underdogs now.

Williams likes that role, and with the 6-9 Watkins tossing in threes off the bench, there could be a Cinderella aspect to the Terps. The luck of the draw is what puts the madness in March. Williams and his leaders will stress that a bad break in February doesn't mean that they have to snap in the postseason.

NOTE: A Maryland spokesman said that Ekezie's tendon was successfully repaired by team orthopedic surgeon Leigh Ann Curl in a 45-minute procedure at Kernan Hospital, part of the University of Maryland Medical System.

Next for Terps

Opponent: No. 12 North Carolina

Site: Cole Field House, College Park

When: Tomorrow, 4 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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