Terrapins blend skill, experience

Visiting UNC today, No. 3 UM hitting stride

College Basketball

February 10, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - They have a blend of talent, athleticism and experience that brings out the envy in opponents and puts them away with regularity.

They have three seniors to lead them, including one strong, first-team All-America candidate in the remarkable Juan Dixon. They have come from behind to win in dramatic fashion, have finished teams off routinely with great second-half bursts, have kept their composure in tight games and have won impressively on the road.

There is little not to like about the No. 3 Maryland Terrapins, who swing into the homestretch of their regular season today with a trip to North Carolina, where Maryland fully expects to match its best start ever under coach Gary Williams and continue its best Atlantic Coast Conference start in more than two decades.

Then again, try convincing Williams of how good life is right now. A year after the first Final Four trip of his coaching career, he is obsessed with winning his first ACC title, getting back to the big stage and pushing through to earn his first national championship. He also is obsessed with keeping his team focused on the here and now, and nothing more.

"What you fight is everybody tells the players how good they are," said Williams, who also realizes this 18-3 team (8-1 ACC) could go down as his best squad in 23 seasons, including the past 13 in College Park.

"We're the third-ranked team in the country. That's all nice. But we haven't won anything yet, other than a great ranking. You're never really at ease with your situation."

The scary thing about Maryland - besides Dixon's knack for scoring and disrupting opposing offenses with amazing consistency, besides the relentless play of center Lonny Baxter, the ability of high-flying forward Chris Wilcox to take over a game, the steadiness of point guard Steve Blake and small forward Byron Mouton, and the depth shared by all-purpose guard Drew Nicholas, forward Tahj Holden and the fast-improving Ryan Randle - is that the Terps are so thick-skinned.

With few exceptions, this team has not been rattled. Look at some of the ways Maryland has created this beginning.

The Terps spotted Princeton a 13-point halftime lead before blowing away the Tigers in the second half. They watched Clemson make a school-record 11 three-pointers in one half before punching back and winning by nine points. They blew a big second-half lead at Georgia Tech before Dixon and great free-throw shooting sealed the deal. They turned close games at the half into decisive victories over Temple and Connecticut.

Maryland fell apart in the final 10 minutes of a 21-point loss at Duke, then responded by blasting Wake Forest on the road and Florida State at home. Then, in their finest hour to date, the Terps erased a nine-point deficit with 3:22 left at Virginia. In a telling display of their businesslike manner, after shocking the Cavaliers, 91-87, on Jan. 31, Maryland barely celebrated on the court, where it had beaten Virginia only three times in 10 tries.

"We're a very mature team. We have a great cast of returning players. It seems like everybody has been here for so long," Baxter said.

"There really aren't any situations we haven't been through," added Nicholas, who has helped Maryland at three positions and knows firsthand of what he speaks. A year ago, his two missed free throws helped Duke sustain that infamous, last-minute comeback that nearly ruined the Terps and Nicholas. A year later, Nicholas killed Virginia with a pair of 25-foot shots that brought Maryland back from the brink of defeat.

The Terps have been through so much. They have drawn immeasurable strength from the way they recovered from the 1-5 midseason funk that threatened to torpedo their season one year ago.

Maryland won 10 of its last 12 games, went to the Final Four, finished with a 25-11 record and returned its top seven scorers, led by the senior trio of Dixon, Baxter and Mouton. They have been around the collegiate game for a combined 14 seasons.

Dixon soon will become the first Maryland player to earn first-team All-ACC honors three times since John Lucas did it more than a quarter-century ago. Baxter still commits too many fouls and misses too many free throws and easy shots, but he still leads the team in rebounding (8.2), is second in scoring (15.1) and has produced five double doubles. Mouton is averaging 13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds against the ACC and is playing his best basketball ever.

"We're playing at a great level, but we're not yet playing the 40 minutes of basketball we need to play to win the national championship," Mouton said. We're playing great basketball, but we need to take it to another level."

Maryland is far from unbeatable. Arizona, Oklahoma ... the warts do reveal themselves on occasion.

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