Baxter hits full stride for Terps

West Regional MVP puts work-first ethic on show in NCAAs

Timing perfect for Duke

Up-and-down year mirrors type season Maryland has had

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 28, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Lonny Baxter must know how valuable he is to the Maryland Terrapins.

On a good night, one of the nation's most prolific offenses flows steadily through Baxter, who could pass for a tight end with his imposing combination of quick feet, broad shoulders and huge biceps.

On a great night, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound junior center from Silver Spring must be a terrifying sight to the poor souls assigned to contain him in the post. Georgetown and top-seeded, No. 2-ranked Stanford each were helpless in the face of Baxter's power and fury in the paint during last weekend's West Regional, which he ruled by taking home the Most Outstanding Player award.

Baxter must also know the Terps probably are not a Final Four team without him.

Good luck trying to get him to say it. In fact, best wishes getting Baxter to say much about anything, especially if the topic is himself.

Baxter, who is known to hang in his dorm or hotel room and watch movies or play video games while his teammates are out, can be painfully reserved with the media. After demolishing Georgetown and Stanford with a combined 50-point, 24-rebound masterpiece, Baxter fidgeted, squirmed and looked down and away from his questioners. A man of the hour could not have appeared more uncomfortable.

"Until he gets to know you, he doesn't give you a lot," Maryland assistant coach Jimmy Patsos said. "But he has never stopped working on his game. He plays with great intensity. Lonny is real."

"When he is at home or with his friends, you can't stop him from talking," said Edna Hughes, Baxter's mother. "Lonny is the type who doesn't talk that much to people he isn't close to."

Don't expect the quiet man to show much emotion on the court, either. Unless you make the mistake of questioning his manhood. When word leaked back to him before the regional semifinals that some Georgetown players had called him "soft," Baxter's angry side flared.

The Hoyas paid dearly, as Baxter combined ferocious rebounding with some monster dunks that made Georgetown's taller frontcourt shrink. Two days later, Stanford ran several big men at Baxter, who knocked Cardinals to the other side of the paint. He put the ball on the floor and drove by them. He hit turnaround jumpers and baby hook shots off the glass. He left Stanford bruised in more ways than one.

"Of all the people to call soft, Lonny is not the one," said Tahj Holden, a 6-10, 250-pound sophomore forward. "He's a physical guy. I have to play against him in practice every day, and I get the same things Georgetown and Stanford got."

Baxter is a future NBA forward playing in a collegiate center's body. He is refining a medium-range jump shot and a floor game that he expects to use more during his final season at the only school for which he ever wanted to play. And his game has rounded into form at the perfect time, as the Terps prepare for the fourth showdown of the year against Duke in Saturday's national semifinals at the Metrodome.

His season has been an up-and-down ride, much like Maryland's. For the longest time, foul trouble kept Baxter toiling below the first-team, All-Atlantic Coast Conference level he attained a year ago. During the Terps' current 10-1 streak, it's no coincidence that Baxter has resumed his place as the dependable pipeline of Maryland's attack, which ranks second in the nation at 85.7 points. Baxter still was good enough to make the All-ACC second team. He ranks second on the team in scoring (15.7 ppg), first in rebounding (7.9) and is tops in shooting percentage (.560). He has recorded six double doubles in his last nine games, and is shooting 60.2 percent in the last 11. He has shot 56 percent during his Maryland career.

"I play against a lot of bigger guys in the ACC, and I was always playing physical [this year], but I was picking up fouls, and some of them were cheap," said Baxter, who went through a midseason stretch during which he drew at least four fouls over a seven-game stretch. He has fouled out four times, but not since Feb. 14.

"Sometimes you've got to just lay back, play smart and play quick. You can't get those cheap fouls. I realized I can't get every rebound. I don't have much height, so I use what I have, which is strength."

That strength helped Baxter step in late in his freshman year and carry the Terps in the post when former center Obinna Ekezie went down with a season-ending injury in 1999. It helped him get through the rigors of Hargrave Military Academy, which he attended for a year after playing at three Washington-area high schools.

"It wasn't like I was a problem child," said Baxter, whose mother moved within suburban Maryland in the middle of his high school days. "Coming out of being in public school all your life, going into a structure like that away from home with all of that discipline, that teaches you a lot. You grow quickly."

Baxter's mother recalled her son calling home "every day, two or three times a day," while adjusting to his new surroundings.

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