Tourney pressure next for Maryland

Cole demands met, Terps tackle elusive ACC tournament title

March 05, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - In one sense, the pressure was off the Maryland Terrapins, who had bagged an Atlantic Coast Conference title and a top seed in this weekend's conference tournament three nights before tipping off in their final regular-season game.

In another sense, the pressure was everywhere on Sunday night, when the second-ranked Terps laid one more rout on another ACC opponent by disposing of Virginia, 112-92.

Besides the fact that the Terps were determined to conclude the Cole Field House era and their regular season on a high note by achieving a 15-0 mark at home and a best-ever 25-3 record, there was the craving of the fans for one more victory and a little peer pressure in the house.

That came from the scores of Maryland basketball dignitaries in attendance, from members of the school's first NCAA tournament team to more recent stars such as Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, Buck Williams, Albert King, Adrian Branch and Keith Booth.

"In the history of Cole Field House, that was probably the most former players ever at one game," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "There was pressure to play well. I was very concerned about us playing well. I think our guys wanted to show [the old guard] how good they were."

And so they did. By winning their 12th consecutive game, the Terps tuned up for their postseason by completing their first 15-1 record against the ACC, and they did it with yet another rout. Consider that Maryland's 15 conference victories were by an average of 15.7 points. Its eight league wins at home were by an average of 16.8 points. Maryland failed to win only four league games by fewer than nine points.

Senior guard Juan Dixon, who led the Terps with 23 points while becoming the second-leading scorer in school history and only the second player ever to score 1,000 points at Cole, said clinching the ACC regular-season crown by virtue of Virginia's upset victory over Duke on Thursday helped the Terps.

Dixon was among the least relaxed on Sunday. First, the pre-game Senior Night ceremony got to him. Then, Virginia's swarming, matchup zone kept him scoreless for the game's first 13 minutes.

But once center Lonny Baxter, forward Chris Wilcox and backup guard Drew Nicholas softened up the Cavaliers, and after Virginia coach Pete Gillen switched to a man-to-man in the second half, Dixon was off and scoring again.

"I know there was really no pressure on us, but we still had to get out of here with a win," Dixon said. "It was emotional, but we had a job to do, and we played great. We had to go out on a high note."

Now that the Terps have given Williams a new present in the form of his first regular-season ACC championship - breaking Duke's five-year grip on it - Maryland will go to Charlotte, N.C., to try hurdling another obstacle.

Maryland has never won an ACC tournament in 13 seasons under Williams, and has not won the tournament since 1984. That year, the late Len Bias was a sophomore, Williams was coaching at Boston College and most of the current Terrapins had yet to reach kindergarten.

The Terps have made it to the ACC final only once since then, losing to Duke two years ago. The Blue Devils have won the past three tournaments.

Maryland and No. 3 Duke probably have locked up No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Should they square off in the final on Sunday, it might be the third part of another four-part series between the two rivals. They met in last year's Final Four. One school appears headed to the East Regional, the other to the South.

Williams takes issue with the emphasis that is placed on the ACC tournament, which is 49 years old and is the original league tourney. Its winner is traditionally known as the true ACC champ. As for Maryland's past problems, he points to the traditional power that Duke and North Carolina have brought to the tournament, and to its typical location.

With the exception of last year's event in Atlanta, the Terps have played every tournament under Williams in Charlotte or Greensboro, N.C.

"Look who we've been up against and look where it's been played," said Williams, whose team has not lost since Jan. 17 at Duke. "It's a great tradition. If I'm a fan, I love the ACC tournament. But judging a team over a three-game weekend as opposed to what they've done over two months and a 16-game schedule is difficult. We want to win the tournament, but I'll take what we did."

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