UM roller coaster is on a steep rise

Maryland: After two big dips, the Terps are climbing again as they head into the ACC tournament.

March 08, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | By Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - He is on the seesaw ride of his life, and Maryland forward Byron Mouton would not trade places with anyone.

Mouton, the redshirt junior who sat out last year after transferring from Tulane, had a strong feeling something unique would happen during his first season playing in a Maryland uniform.

How right he was.

The 11th-ranked Terps might not end up as the best team in the country. But right now, they might be the game's most fascinating crew.

As the third seed in the 48th annual Atlantic Coast Conference tournament that begins at the Georgia Dome with tonight's play-in game between Clemson and Florida State, Maryland looks like the ACC's most dangerous squad. The Terps, who open tournament play tomorrow (9:30 p.m.) against sixth-seeded Wake Forest, might be the hottest team in the country.

Maryland was tried and fried throughout a crazy regular season, a year in which the Terps have stumbled, soared, stumbled and soared again.

The team that is rolling into the postseason with a five-game winning streak - during which it has defeated four Top 25 teams and won by an average of 20 points - is the same team that lost at home to Florida State and embarrassed itself on the road at Georgia Tech and Virginia during a 1-5 skid that threatened to torpedo the season three weeks ago.

"I've never been on a team that's gone up and down like this one," Mouton said.

Junior guard Juan Dixon, the heart of the team and its leading scorer, summed up the ride by saying, "It's been a wild season. For us to start out like we did [a 1-3 record], go on a nine-game winning streak, lose five out of six, then win five in a row, that's a story right there."

This is the story of a team that thought too highly of itself early, when preseason prognosticators showered the Terps with praise and high expectations, annointing them as Final Four participants. Every starter had returned from a 25-10 team that had no senior starters.

It's the story of a team that seemed to find its way during a 5-1 start in the ACC, only to suffer the most devastating defeat its coach had ever endured, a 98-96 overtime defeat at home against Duke, which erased a 10-point Maryland lead in the final 54 seconds of regulation play.

The Terps then piled up a huge surplus in the adversity department, as they staggered in a blowout loss at Virginia, got whipped in the second half of a loss at North Carolina, turned the ball over all night at Georgia Tech, then bottomed out in front of their fans in a shocking loss to Florida State.

Regrouping, rebounding

And the story took yet another sharp turn in the critical days after the Seminoles' debacle, when the Terps regrouped behind senior leadership and the reassuring touch of their fiery coach. Maryland essentially saved its season three days after the Florida State loss by traveling to Wake Forest and showing its teeth while dismantling the Demon Deacons, 73-57.

After routing North Carolina State three nights later, the Terps stared down a ranked, rough-and-tumble Oklahoma team. Then they won a huge psychological battle by going to Cameron Indoor Stadium and coming from behind to beat the Blue Devils - on senior night, no less. They followed that by destroying then-No. 7 Virginia to complete the regular season.

"You can only think that all of the things we've been through have made us stronger. We've been through some really tough games," said senior backup center Mike Mardesich, a huge locker room influence this year.

"We've had to prove ourselves twice during the season. I think guys bought into all of the [preseason] talk about our talent and all of the expectations. Then, guys were doing things to play well individually and not to lose. Now we're doing everything like a machine."

Get nasty

And an angry machine at that. Maybe one day the Terps will thank Florida State for awakening a sleeping giant.

It's not just that Maryland is playing free and easy, or that Dixon's shots are falling once again, or that center Lonny Baxter is avoiding foul trouble, or that senior forward Terence Morris is rebounding like a man possessed, or that the Terps' much-publicized depth has come to the fore with tremendous recent showings from Danny Miller, Tahj Holden and Drew Nicholas.

Maryland has become the popular choice to win its first ACC tournament under Williams because of an attitude adjustment.

"We have a bunch of good guys. I thought they were too nice for a while," said Williams, who has driven the Terps with a more restrained style this season, particularly in the past few weeks. "But they have gotten tough on the court. That's been a big change for us."

Long way from Maui

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