Maryland needs to answer wake-up call

March 10, 2002|By Mike Preston

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Maybe now the University of Maryland's basketball team understands that every team will play the Terps hard. Maybe now they will play every game with intensity and passion for 40 minutes. Maybe now Maryland has that sense of urgency because if the Terps lose a game later this week, possibly the best team in school history will be nothing more than a memory.

There weren't a lot of good things to take out of second-ranked and top-seeded Maryland's 86-82 loss to North Carolina State in an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal at the Charlotte Coliseum yesterday.

Terps critics will use the loss as another opportunity to take shots at coach Gary Williams, whose team looked tired and still hasn't won a conference title in his 13 years at Maryland (all right, I had to get one in, too).

But let's look past the small picture and into the bigger one. It would have been nice for Maryland (26-4) to win the ACC tournament, but league tournaments are basically a second chance for bubble teams to earn their way into the NCAA tournament.

Maryland is still expected to get a No. 1 seed, came out of yesterday's game healthy and hopefully will use this as a way to get its groove back.

If Stella could find hers, why not the Terps? Hopefully, this team won't flame out like the Stevie Francis-led Terps in the 1999 tournament.

Right about now, Williams is still disappointed, irritable and ticked off. Translation: The Terps should get the edge back this week. The loss also will give them an extra day of rest and preparation.

A team that had not lost a game since a 99-78 defeat to Duke on Jan. 17 might have needed to feel some hunger pangs again.

"Maybe we need a loss like this. We ran off so many in a row," said Maryland senior guard Juan Dixon. "Maybe we need to sit back and start all over again."

Maryland sophomore forward Chris Wilcox said: "We can't lose the next game. We have to learn from our mistakes. We have to come to an agreement and decide if we want to win this thing or not."

That's what Maryland's postseason is all about.

It's the Terps against themselves.

There aren't too many teams that can beat them when they are playing well. This tournament was set up for Duke-Maryland III, and the officials again gave Maryland favorable treatment for the second straight day yesterday. But N.C. State, which had lost six straight to Maryland, might have played its best game of the season.

The Wolfpack shot 65.2 percent from the field in the second half. It ran pick-and-roll plays to perfection. It was a total team effort. The team's top gun, guard Anthony Grundy, had 24 points, and a backup, forward Ilian Evtimov, had 12 points.

"Grundy, [Archie] Miller, [Marcus] Melvin, No. 3, what's his name, Aftermouth [Evtimov], whatever his name. You can't point out one player; that whole team played well, and they played for 40 minutes," said Maryland senior forward Byron Mouton.

"That's what we're going to need, a 40-minute effort. Any team we play is going to play with great energy and great focus. We need to be mentally tough. At times, we're not focused on running plays. We're forcing shots. Maybe we needed that loss because next week you lose one and you're gone."

The irony is that despite Maryland playing poorly, the Terps had a chance to win because N.C. State missed eight of its last 12 free throws. The Wolfpack wanted to give Maryland the game, but the Terps couldn't take it.

In two games, Maryland played well for about 25 minutes. That's it. The Terps blew out Florida State, 85-59, in their tournament opener, but even then it was a so-so effort by a team that should be peaking.

Of the five starters, the most consistent were center Lonny Baxter and guard Steve Blake. Wilcox was 7-for-21 from the field in two games, and Mouton disappeared in the second half against N.C. State when he played only 12 minutes and scored just one point.

Dixon had 33 points in two games, but he had defensive lapses in both. Grundy got him for 24, a day after Florida State's Monte Cummings put up 19. If it weren't for Blake and his 21 points yesterday, Maryland wouldn't have had much offense. The point guard became the No. 1 option in an offense where his primary role is a feeder.

But this wasn't all about offense. Maryland was slow covering Wolfpack cutters, and gave up many backdoor layups.

"They hit backdoor cuts on us like never before," Dixon said.

The Terps are going to need patience now, and resolve. They have to regain their focus, which is on the Final Four, and possibly a national championship. A year ago, especially early in the season, any loss would have rattled this team.

But these Terps are different. They have played extremely well after losses, and have three seniors in the starting lineup. There is no proper time to lose a game, but yesterday might be the one that motivates the team into a postseason filled with big expectations.

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