Can Terps pocket eight ball?

UM can finally reach Elite Eight with win over Hoyas tonight

`It's survival of the fittest'

School seeking trip beyond Sweet 16 for first time since '75

NCAA Tournament

March 22, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif -- Drew Nicholas thought back to the days of November, the days when Maryland received its first dose of reality at the season-opening Maui Invitational, the days when the Terrapins were living on preseason hype and heavy expectations.

The ensuing four-month marathon has broken down the Terps, built them up, broken them down again and ultimately brought them to the doorstep of uncharted territory. It has led Maryland 3,000 miles from home to face an opponent that resides in its backyard.

A victory by the third-seeded Terps tonight over 10th-seeded Georgetown in the West Regional semifinals would put Maryland in a place it last traveled before its current crop of players had been born.

It would send the Terps (23-10) into the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight for the first time since 1975, when Maryland coach Gary Williams was teaching New Jersey high school kids how to play the game.

"Maui seems like two years ago. We've all matured with all the experiences we've had this year," said Nicholas, recalling the Terps' 1-2 showing in Hawaii, which got this long, strange season off on the wrong bounce.

"Now it's the survival of the fittest. Our mind-set is we're going out there to do anything we can to win this basketball game. I want to do it for [Williams]. I want to get that little gnat off his shoulder."

That would be the Elite Eight barrier, which Williams has failed to negotiate during a 23-year coaching career that has produced 447 victories at four schools, including a 240-victory run at Maryland over the past 12 seasons.

This marks the seventh time Williams has been to the Sweet 16, and his fifth at Maryland, which is participating in its eighth straight NCAA tournament.

"It's a big deal for Maryland. Yeah, I want to do it. But I want these guys to do it, after going through the Florida State game and that whole thing," said Williams, referring to the home loss to the Seminoles on Feb. 14 that capped a 1-5 slump and put Maryland on the NCAA tournament bubble.

"Now it's a one-game playoff again. Each year is different, but each year you don't get to play that game again."

The Terps have pulled off a minor miracle since bottoming out five weeks ago. They won six of their next seven games to earn a No. 3 seed, beating five ranked teams along the way by an average of 20 points. Then, they survived a first-round, NCAA tournament scare against George Mason, before blowing out upset-minded Georgia State.

Tonight, the Terps must traverse a big, rugged Georgetown (25-7) team that thrives on rebounding and defense and grinding away at opponents. Maryland has boasted some of the nation's better depth all year, and the Terps will rely heavily on it tonight, especially up front.

The game features two longtime buddies from Baltimore City -- Maryland shooting guard Juan Dixon and Georgetown point guard Kevin Braswell -- competing against each other for the first time.

It also pits opponents with differing styles, although that favors the Terps, who are equally comfortable with a breakneck pace and a half-court game. Georgetown would love to keep the scoring in the 60s. Maryland, which might force the tempo more than occasionally, ranks third in the nation with a scoring average of 85.5 points.

"Hopefully, we can hold them under 86 points. I think we would be in trouble if they score more that," said Georgetown coach Craig Esherick, who has the Hoyas in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997.

"Offensively, they are as talented as anybody we've played this season. They have six or seven guys who can pass the ball, six or seven guys who can shoot threes. They are versatile and explosive. They have had to run against teams like Duke all year. Maryland's talent on offense will keep me up tonight."

Although Dixon and Braswell, the two leaders of their respective squads, might guard each other at times, one of the prime battles to watch is Maryland point guard Steve Blake's defense on Braswell, whose ball-handling and ability to penetrate will be tied hugely to the Hoyas' fortunes.

Dixon, who predicted a Maryland victory ("We win by 12"), expects to contain Hoyas guard Demetrius Hunter, a tremendous leaper at 6 feet 1. Dixon leads the Terps with an 18.3-point scoring average and expects to get his points tonight.

This affair shapes up as low-scoring, with lots of whistles and free throws. Georgetown allows only 67.3 points a game and ranks seventh in the nation in opposing field-goal percentage (.387). Maryland has held seven of its past nine opponents under 37 percent shooting.

The winner could be the team that refuses to crack in the paint, where the Terps have become much stronger since getting pushed around by the likes of Illinois and North Carolina earlier this season.

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