Terps appear entitled to ACC favorite's role

Surging UM seeks first crown since '84

March 09, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - The last time the men's basketball team at Maryland won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, its players were little boys and Gary Williams was making a name for himself as the coach at Boston College.

One year removed from its first trip to the ACC final since that last tournament championship in 1984, the 11th-ranked Terps appear poised to make some history. Maryland is the third seed behind North Carolina and Duke, but the Terps have become the fashionable pick to clean up at the Georgia Dome and take home a trophy.

Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, whose sixth-seeded Demon Deacons will face Maryland in the last quarterfinal game tonight, knows all too well about the way the Terps (20-9) are performing these days. Maryland stopped a perilous 1-5 skid three weeks ago by hitting the road and whipping Wake Forest (19-9) by 16 points.

That sparked a five-game winning streak, during which the Terps have won by an average of 20 points while beating four ranked teams, including Duke on the road and Oklahoma and Virginia at Cole Field House.

"I think they're the best team playing in the tournament today," Odom said of the Terps. "That doesn't mean they are going to win it, but they have every right to think they are going to win it. We've got the opportunity to prove them wrong. But to win this game, we've got to play our best basketball of the year.

"I feel partly responsible for the way they are playing right now," added Odom, who recalled taking the lead four minutes into the second half of that game on Feb. 17. "We looked like we were going to take control of that game. There was a media timeout, and [Maryland] hasn't looked back since. They've been full steam ahead, no matter who they play."

Everything points to a strong showing this weekend from the Terps, who lost last year's ACC final to Duke, the second seed this time around.

For the first time in recent memory, Maryland is playing its best at the key time of the year. The Terps are 10 days removed from a 91-80 victory at Duke, which came one month after they dominated the Blue Devils for 39 minutes, only to blow a 10-point lead in the final 54 seconds and eventually lose in overtime, sparking that 1-5 slump.

Top-seeded North Carolina, which swept the Terps during the regular season, is playing poorly at the worst time. The Tar Heels have dropped three of their past five games, losing by a combined 44 points.

And Maryland, which gets to play a rare ACC tournament outside of the state of North Carolina - much to Williams' delight - starts off against an opponent it has owned this year. The Terps have swept No. 22 Wake Forest with a pair of double-digit victories.

"I'd rather be the hot team than the team that's struggling," said Williams, whose Terps probably would face Duke, without injured center Carlos Boozer (right foot fracture), in Saturday's semifinals by dispatching Wake Forest. "With what we've gone through this year, that's not pressure. Pressure was trying to win again after we lost to Florida State."

Maryland is shooting and defending better than at any other time. During its 5-0 streak, the Terps have given up an average of 66 points by holding four of those opponents to 36.5 percent shooting or lower. Over that span, the offense has thrived in the half-court game and in transition, averaging 86 points. The Terps shot a season-high 62.3 percent in last week's 102-67 rout over Virginia.

"We've just turned our season around, and we're winning a lot of games convincingly," said junior guard Juan Dixon, whose blazing, regular-season finish - he has averaged 23.8 points during the winning streak - earned him his second straight All-ACC first team honor. "Right now, we're one of those teams peaking at the right time."

It does not appear to be a good matchup for the Demon Deacons. Maryland destroyed them inside last month, and senior guard Robert O'Kelley, a Terps killer in other years, has 11 points against them this season.

Maryland is healthy and is sporting a 10-man rotation that seems tailor-made for the potential three-day, three-game grind. The Terps, who seem assured of at least a No. 4 seed when the NCAA tournament brackets are announced Sunday, could elevate as high as a No. 2 by winning the ACC crown. That's quite a turnaround for a team that wondered if it would make the NCAAs three weeks ago.

"It took us a while to get to the point where we are now," said sophomore point guard Steve Blake, the ACC leader in assists with 6.83 per game. "Because of what happened to us during the year, we know we can be beaten if we don't play well and play hard. We don't want that to happen again. We feel like we're going to win every game."

NOTES: Maryland practiced yesterday at Georgia State, where ex-Terps coach Lefty Driesell is the coach. Driesell observed practice and spoke to Williams afterward. ... Former Terp Albert King will be honored at the tournament today.

Terps tonight

Opponent: Wake Forest in Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinal

Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Time: 9:30

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Records: Maryland 20-9, 10-6 ACC; Wake Forest 19-9, 8-8 ACC

Today's other ACC quarterfinals

North Carolina (23-5) vs. Clemson (12-18), noon

Georgia Tech (16-11) vs. Virginia (20-7), 2:30 p.m.

N.C. State (13-15) vs. Duke (26-4), 7 p.m. TV: All games on Ch. 54.

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