Deck stacked, Terps nearly come up aces

January 07, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Everything set up for North Carolina State. First game in the new 19,722-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena. A veteran team determined to end its Maryland hex. And, to further stoke the emotion, the introduction of a new football coach -- former Florida State assistant Chuck Amato -- earlier in the day.

Those were the realities, and if the Terps were going to lose their first regular-season game to N.C. State since Feb. 23, 1994, last night was the perfect setting. But naturally, Maryland coach Gary Williams was in no mood for excuses after his 12th-ranked Terps lost their Atlantic Coast Conference opener, 68-66.

He had come too close, and so had his team.

"We've got to grow up," Williams said. "We can't worry about what our age is, what class people are in. You step up and play. Nobody is going to give you anything just because you've got four new starters. You've got to go play. When we understand this, I think we'll be a better team."

This was Williams in the immediate aftermath, reliving the painful final moments of defeat. The rebound the Terps failed to recover after a missed front end by Justin Gainey with 1: 11 left. The game-winning shot by Gainey with 1.3 seconds left off a high screen that the Terps should have anticipated. The 35-footer by Terence Morris that banked off the rim as time expired.

Get ready for an entire season like this in the ACC -- wild finishes, surprise outcomes, unlikely heroes. The Terps could fall to 0-2 Sunday when they face No. 7 Duke at Cole Field House. But even if that happens -- and Williams is 2-19 at Maryland against Duke's Mike Krzyzewski -- they should be fine.

Lest anyone forget, the Terps started 0-2 in the ACC two years ago but rebounded to finish 10-6 in the conference and reach the Sweet 16. It's clear that this team needs to get tougher inside, and perhaps tougher mentally. But losing last night was certainly no disgrace.

Look at the bright side -- the Comcast Terps boast the best naming-rights deal in the ACC -- $20 million over 10 years for the Comcast Center, which is scheduled to open in 2002. And if you're upset that an institution of higher learning would sell its soul to a cable-television company, you're still living in the 20th century.

The new N.C. State arena offered a glimpse into Life After Cole, and the future didn't look -- or sound -- all bad. Students ringed the court, as they will at the Comcast Center. The place was twice as loud as the Dean Dome and amounted to a severe test for a Maryland team playing its first road game of the season.

Again, it was practically a setup.

And still, the Terps almost won.

They responded to an 18-4 deficit with a 15-0 run in the first half, then rallied from a six-point deficit in the final three minutes to tie the score with 18.8 seconds left. They got critical points from Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter when Morris went scoreless in the final 10 minutes. And yes, they accomplished all this with four freshmen and three sophomores in their nine-man rotation.

Williams entered the game concerned about the Wolfpack's offensive rebounding, and his fears were justified. State's top four frontcourt players averaged 6-foot-7 and 229 pounds. Baxter (6-foot-7, 250) and Mike Mardesich (7-foot, 250) were Maryland's only counters. And Mardesich went 1-for-5 with four rebounds in 19 minutes.

True, N.C. State is a poor-shooting team that depends upon offensive rebounding to score. But its edge on the offensive boards was only 22-16. And even the play that most agitated Williams -- Damon Thornton's rebound of Gainey's missed free throw -- proved of little consequence. Gainey missed two more free throws, and the Terps tied the score on Danny Miller's layup with 18.8 seconds left.

That led to State's final possession, and Williams was upset that Maryland allowed Gainey to hit his running jumper off the most basic of plays, a high screen. But even that mistake was excusable. Gainey is a senior point guard who took advantage of his freshman counterpart, Steve Blake. He hit a clutch shot with Baxter flying at him. There are worse ways to lose.

The Terps need to play better defense; Williams had to resort to a 3-2 zone in the second half to shake his team's lethargy. They need Dixon to revive from the outside; he has missed 18 straight three-pointers and attempted only one last night. But mostly, they need to learn from their mistakes.

They've beaten Kentucky, Illinois and Notre Dame, a team that just upset Connecticut. But now conference play has begun, and crazy things are happening -- Florida State winning at Wake Forest, Virginia taking Duke to overtime. The N.C. State players who ran off the court exchanging high-fives with their fans didn't care that they had just beaten a young Maryland team.

"There are a lot of teams in the league that after last year want a shot at us," Williams said. "We have to understand that. The guys last year who did all the damage are not here, and these guys are paying the price. But that's sports. The new guys come in, they've got to get through that."

They will. Last night was a rough initiation, nothing more.

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