Center jumps for joy

where does he land?

February 07, 2000|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK -- When the final horn sounded, Lonny Baxter just started jumping.

As students rushed the court and a shattering din shook Cole Field House, Baxter let down his typical reserve and unleashed his emotions for all to see. He became a 265-pound pogo stick, jumping up and down, up and down, shouting at the top of his voice and pumping a fist in the air.

He had just played the game of his life, delivering 31 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks as the Maryland Terrapins rallied from 17 points behind to beat North Carolina State yesterday.

Now coach Gary Williams was hugging him, the crowd was chanting his name and Baxter was just jumping. Up and down. Up and down.

"I was just so excited," he said a few minutes later, holding court in the Terps' locker room. "That's probably the greatest game I've ever played."

Probably?

"I still can't believe it happened," he said.

Now that it has, on the heels of Baxter's 24-point performances in the Terps' two games before yesterday, there are all sorts of questions to ask. How good can Baxter become? Is this for real? Are we watching the burly sophomore from Rockville emerge, almost magically, as a load-carrying star?

"All I know," Williams said, "is no player in the ACC has had more impact over the past couple of weeks."

We'll see if he can keep it up, especially with the Terps heading to Cameron Indoor Stadium to play Duke Wednesday night. Funny how that trip always seems to take the shine off things.

Still, there's no doubt the Terps are back on track after winning five of their past six games, and a shift in their order is occurring, with Baxter's star rising in a hurry. Suddenly, he has more points and rebounds than forward Terence Morris this season.

"What's happening is Lonny has gotten stronger," Williams said. "He's added weight to the point that he's adding muscle now. He's just overpowering people. And he's so quick for his size. It's rare for a 265-pounder to be able to out-quick guys."

Baxter's explanation for his sudden emergence?

"I'm just being more aggressive," he said. "Before, I was more laid-back. I'd just let things happen. Now I'm asking for the ball and making things happen."

Whatever the reason, he's delivering more than anyone expected when he arrived at Maryland in the fall of 1998. He had averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds as a senior at Hargrave Military Academy, but he played in the shadow of Korleone Young, a guard who jumped to the NBA, and "you hardly ever noticed him," Williams said.

That was also true for most of his freshman season at Maryland. Baxter was a bit player until Obinna Ekezie went down with an injury in early February, and Baxter suddenly became a starter. He played well, but it was hard to imagine him having this kind of impact just a year later.

"I thought about being a key player and I wanted to be one," he said, "but I didn't expect anything like this."

Who did?

"When he got here, I thought he could be a good college player, but I probably had limits in my mind as far as what he could become," Williams said. "I wouldn't do that [set limits] now. If you take the strength and quickness he has and add a jump shot, which is the next step for him, you have a really interesting player.

"Basically, he's come from us getting a bunch of crap about recruiting him to having the potential to be one of the best players to play here. And it's all because he's worked. He listens when you tell him what he needs to do. A coach can tell when a player is listening, even when they don't say anything. Lonny looks you right in the eye."

How far can he go? Who knows? He needs to develop a better jumper, but he has soft hands, a wide body and a nifty set of moves to the basket -- an enviable combination.

He also has a lot of heart, as he showed yesterday after the Terps came out flat and fell behind, 22-5. Baxter scored nine straight points and 13 of 15 for the Terps as they closed to within four. When State pulled back ahead, then cut off another rally in the second half, the outcome seemed decided. But Baxter was relentless.

With the margin down to one and Cole roaring, he called for the ball and flipped in a shot with 74 seconds left to give the Terps their first lead since the game's first minute. Then he seized on a mismatch and banked in another shot with 39 seconds left. One of the Terps' best comebacks was complete.

A few seconds later, the crowd was on the court and Baxter was jumping. Williams almost broke down in tears later as he discussed his center.

"It was one of those games where, even though you don't want to, you start thinking, `We're not going to win,' " Williams said. "We just hung in there so tough. And Lonny was the heart."

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