Hole's big, but Terps plug away

February 14, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- It's going a little too far to suggest the Maryland Terrapins are better with Lonny Baxter and Mike Mardesich playing center instead of injured senior Obinna Ekezie.

"That's just not true," Maryland coach Gary Williams said after the Terps' 81-64 victory over North Carolina yesterday at Cole Field House.

But the Terps are faring better than anyone expected without Ekezie, who was lost for the season when he tore his Achilles' tendon last week.

In fact, there's reason to believe the Terps will be just fine, thank you.

"Obinna scored 19 points in the second half against North Carolina last month, which is the kind of explosiveness our replacement guys can't give us," Williams said. "But they can give us great intensity."

Also defense, rebounding and some scoring, if yesterday's game is any indication. Baxter and Mardesich combined for 19 points and 10 rebounds, and, more importantly, helped shut down Carolina's inside game despite the Tar Heels' decided size advantage.

"I know they miss Ekezie, but they're certainly picking up the slack," Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said.

Whether they can keep picking up the slack is the issue, of course. They did against North Carolina State last week, and again yesterday. But two games isn't enough to trust.

"Today was great, and North Carolina State was great, but we still have to prove some things as a team without Obinna," Williams said.

Not that he's anything less than thrilled.

"I'm really, really pleased with the way we've handled this," he said.

What's not to love? Baxter, a wide-body freshman who'd barely played, has more than held his own inside. And Mardesich, who was struggling through a sophomore slump, suddenly resembles the promising freshman of a year ago.

"They haven't done anything to disgrace the big fella's memory," Terps senior Laron Profit said.

Can they just up and replace Ekezie, a senior who'd started 105 games?

"Obinna was a great player who had a great career," Mardesich said. "But I like to think we can do it."

This much is true: The Terps are more athletic in the middle without Ekezie, they pass better and have softer hands. The ball tends to come back out sometimes, which it wasn't doing when Ekezie was in there.

Baxter, in particular, is a more fluid player who helps the offense hum. His rise is the real surprise, given that he didn't even play in the Terps' overtime win at Clemson just three weeks ago. Now, suddenly, he's established as a starter.

"He has no fear," Williams said.

"No one competes harder than Lonny. He wasn't playing, but he kept working and basically forced us to start playing him because of the way he was playing in practice."

Baxter was matter-of-fact in the spotlight yesterday.

"I have to get the job done. It's as simple as that," he said. "But I'm not feeling the pressure."

It helps that he isn't alone in the middle, thanks to sophomore forward Terence Morris, who also has raised his inside game since Ekezie's injury. Morris had 14 points, nine rebounds and five blocks yesterday, and 17 points and 16 rebounds against State.

"Terence is remarkable," Williams said. "He recognized what we were going to need after Obinna went down, and he's responding. I'm sure it's a comfort to Lonny and Mike to know he's there. too."

Williams rotated the three at center and power forward yesterday, using two at all times against Carolina's big front line. The results were surprising. The Tar Heels looked flat all day.

"I'm sure people are surprised at how well we did inside," Mardesich said. "But we can do that."

It was a day of personal retribution for Mardesich, who had fallen from favor with the fans at Cole Field House because of his lackluster play. He was a different player yesterday, fighting for rebounds and pumping his fists with emotion.

"When Obinna went down, Mike's reaction was, `Well, I'm just going to play now. I don't care how it looks or what people think,' " Williams said. "A player has to commit to that to be successful."

Mardesich said: "I had to step up, basically, because it's my position. But that's not hard. That's not pressure. Pressure, for me, was not playing, not being relied upon or being part of things. It's so unfortunate, what happened to Obinna, and I hate saying that it feels great to be relied on now. But that's so huge for a player. It makes all the difference for me."

To say Ekezie won't be missed is ridiculous. He was a defensive anchor averaging 12.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, and while he was maddening at times, he was capable of huge performances and tended to play big in the biggest games.

At some point, against some team, his bulk and experience in the middle will be sorely missed.

"We survived this week on a gut reaction, an immediate reaction to losing him," Williams said. "Now we have to settle in and try to rework the way we do some things. It's not what you want to do this late, but we'll see what happens."

So far, so good -- surprisingly good.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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