On marquee stage, Maryland's gritty play shines through

November 25, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- Less than a minute into the game, Maryland's Juan Dixon went up for a jump shot from the corner -- the same shot that carried the Terps past San Francisco and Tulane and into the Preseason National Invitation Tournament semifinals against Kentucky last night.

Kentucky's Desmond Allison not only swatted the ball away as it was leaving Dixon's hand, but he also stared down Dixon and shouted, "Don't bother bringing that stuff in here!"

A referee jumped in between them and admonished Allison, but the point was made: What was good enough to beat two underdogs at Cole Field House wasn't going to cut it against 11th-ranked Kentucky last night at Madison Square Garden.

That cold reality seemed to stun the young Terps, who found themselves down by 13 points at halftime.

But by the time the game was over, the Terps had shown the big-city crowd, a national television audience on ESPN -- and, more importantly, themselves -- that they just might have what it takes to play with college basketball's elite.

They wound up losing, 61-58, after rallying in the second half and missing a shot that would have tied the score at the buzzer. But as bitterly disappointed as they were, their performance only bodes well for the rest of the season.

That wasn't Fairleigh Dickinson on the opposite bench last night. That was a team that has won two of the past four national titles, reached the Elite Eight last year and probably will come close again this year despite losing four starters.

The Terps also are missing four starters from last year and lack Kentucky's size, experience, versatility and overall pedigree, but it didn't matter last night.

They had more of what every coach loves to see -- heart.

Their comeback wasn't the result of tactical brilliance or hot shooting, although Maryland coach Gary Williams did make some nifty halftime adjustments to get the ball to Terence Morris, who led all scorers with 25 points. They rallied simply because they fought harder than Kentucky for most of the second half.

The Wildcats missed 20 of 25 shots in the last 20 minutes, with a lot of the misses due to Maryland's harrying defense.

And Kentucky's size advantage? Maryland grabbed three more rebounds.

"We knew we could play with them," Morris said. "We just came out a little nervous." They came out terribly, to be exact, stinking up the place with a first-half performance that suggested that, indeed, as some feared, they might be too young, thin and shallow to get much done this season.

"For whatever reason, for most of the first half, we didn't do what we normally do, the way we run our offense, the way we play defense," Williams said. "You can get away with that against other teams. You don't get away with that against Kentucky." But as it turned out, the Terps almost did.

Freshman point guard Steve Blake outplayed his junior counterpart, Saul Smith, delivering seven assists in 34 strong minutes that statistics can't quantify. Let there be no doubt about his ability to play at this level.

Same with Dixon, even though the sophomore from Calvert Hall missed 14 of 17 shots, including the three-pointer that would have sent the game into overtime, and committed six turnovers. He also grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds, contributed two assists and two steals and challenged the Wildcats at every turn down the stretch.

And of course, there would have been no rally without Morris, who put on a major-league performance in front of a row of NBA scouts, delivering eight rebounds, three steals and two assists to go with his 25 points.

He carried the Terps in the second half, taking over when it really mattered, after the Wildcats had fended off one challenge and rebuilt a 10-point lead with 14 minutes to play. At one point, he scored or assisted on 10 straight Maryland points, getting the best of Kentucky's taller frontcourt.

When he tipped in a miss by Baxter to bring the Terps even at 52-52 with 6: 28 left, Kentucky responded, as all top teams do, by raising its defensive game. The Terps didn't score a basket for more than four minutes, with three possessions ending before a shot was taken. The Wildcats used that to rebuild their lead at 57-52 with 2: 50 to go -- seemingly enough.

But the Terps still kept coming.

Lonny Baxter hit a bank shot and Morris followed with two free throws to cut the lead to one, and after Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince responded with two free throws to make it 59-56, Maryland came upcourt with the ball, needing three points to tie.

But Morris missed a three-pointer and Baxter missed twice inside, and Kentucky had control again.

The Wildcats missed two or four free throws at the end to keep the Terps in the game, and Dixon said his final shot felt good when it left his hands, but when it rimmed out, the Terps were relegated to tomorrow night's third-place game against Notre Dame.

The Terps had shown their youth in the way they forced key shots and handled crucial possessions. This was no masterpiece.

But they'd played big on the big stage, looking very much like a team that deserved a national ranking, shortcomings and all.

Sometimes, even when you lose, you find out good things about yourself.

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