Terps trade in hype, get fun in return

November 27, 1999|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK -- Gary Williams was standing in a corridor outside the Maryland locker room, holding a towel and a copy of the box score. His tie was loose, his voice was raspy and he was happy.

"This is fun," he said. "This is a great position to be in."

The great expectations of a year ago are gone. No one is expecting too much from a team that lost Steve Francis and three other starters after a 28-win season.

But the Terps aren't bad. In fact, they might end up being pretty good.

That seems apparent after they chased Kentucky to the final buzzer Wednesday night, then raised their record to 4-1 by beating Notre Dame last night in the Preseason National Invitation Tournament third-place game at Madison Square Garden -- a quality win over a dangerous team in conditions that reeked of March.

"We have a chance to be good," Williams said. "We're young and we make mistakes, but we never quit. If we don't improve from here, we're in trouble. But if we do improve, and I think we will, we could be right there."

Fun instead of pressure. What a concept.

"I remember how upset everyone got last year when we went into Kentucky undefeated and lost," Williams said, "and the last time I checked, Kentucky hardly ever loses at home. I don't mind expectations like that, because it means everyone knows you have a good team. But it's really nice when [expectations] are more reasonable and you can watch a young team grow and improve like this. I'm loving it."

Not that the fans should get too excited. You can only do so much with four freshman and sophomore starters, depth still weeping over prom night, a starting backcourt that weighs less than Jonathan Ogden and a lineup so inexperienced that center Lonny Baxter, with 10 career starts, is the No. 2 veteran.

"You see the way we play," Williams said. "We play good offense for a while, we play good defense for a while. Things come in and out."

Last night, the Terps led by 18 points early in the second half and then barely held on after Notre Dame's outside shooting heated up late in the game. Wednesday night, they trailed Kentucky by 16 before rallying to tie in the final minutes. Last week, they had to overcome a 17-point deficit to beat Tulane.

"We have to work on playing 40 minutes, obviously," said junior forward Terence Morris, who had 12 points, six rebounds, six assists and six blocks last night.

But if the problems are obvious, so are the assets. The Terps excel at Williams' staple -- hustling, all-court defense. They challenge every pass and shot. Offensively, Baxter is a force inside, shooting guard Juan Dixon is utterly fearless and freshman point guard Steve Blake can create his own shots and handle college-caliber pressure.

Instead of folding under the pressure of Notre Dame's comeback, they held on with plays such as Morris' no-look pass to Baxter, leading to a dunk, and two free throws from Dixon after he'd missed eight of 11 from the field.

"A lot of people don't think we're going to be a top team, but we feel like we have as much talent as anyone," Morris said. "If we keep on beating these quality teams, the perception that people have of us is going to change."

Maybe it already is.

"They have some talented kids," Notre Dame coach Matt Doherty said. "You know they're going to press you and you know they're going to scrap."

Things could be worse, in other words.

"We're young, we're learning and we play hard," said Baxter, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds last night.

If there's a lesson in every game for the young team, as Williams suggests, last night's was about coping without Morris in the final stages of a close game. Morris committed his fifth foul with 67 seconds remaining and the Terps up, 69-65. Mike Mardesich came off the bench to replace him.

"That was a gut check for us, no question," sophomore Danny Miller said.

The Irish cut the lead to two on a basket by center Harold Swanagan and just missed forcing a critical turnover with 30 seconds left, but they wound up fouling the wrong guy -- Dixon, the one Terp who, though only a sophomore, obviously wants the ball in clutch situations.

His two free throws with 19.3 seconds left finally put the Irish in a hole too deep. When Baxter rebounded Jimmy Dillon's miss at the other end, the Terps had their best win of the season.

"We're having a good time," Miller said. "It's different than last year. We're not in the top five. The expectations aren't the same. But ask anyone in here, and we think we can be pretty high [in the rankings] by the end of the year. We have a lot of talent and a lot to offer."

And most importantly, no one is expecting them to do too much.

"It's fun to watch," Williams said. "It really is."

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