Terps regain their swagger, aim to leave foes staggered

March 18, 2002|By Mike Preston

WASHINGTON - The University of Maryland will enter the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament near the top of its game, and with an attitude.

And a message.

"This is how we play basketball, and if anybody wants to come and try to beat us, then bring it," said Terps reserve guard Drew Nicholas.

It's great to get a little swagger going in the postseason. The Terps (28-4) have plenty of confidence now after trashing Wisconsin, 87-57, last night in the second round at MCI Center.

No one will confuse the Badgers with Kansas or Duke as far as being in college basketball's elite, but you have to admire the way Maryland took the hearts out of the Big Ten bullies.

Hard-nosed basketball?

The Terps physically abused Wisconsin (19-13) and turned the game around with two major runs, the second one to open the second half as they outscored the Badgers 17-3 and took a 55-33 lead with 13:39 left in the game.

That was it, and then it was showtime at the Apollo. Wisconsin quit, and the Terps were bound for Syracuse, N.Y., where they will meet No. 4 seed Kentucky in the regional semifinals.

"We're focusing on Kentucky right now," Nicholas said. "One of the things people could have said about us was that we hadn't played our A game going into the Kentucky game, but they can't say that now.

"This game gave us some confidence going into next week. This was a confidence-builder. We knew we didn't play our best game against Siena [85-70 win on Friday night]. Once you get down into the NCAA tournament, you have to play good basketball. We played well [last night], especially in the second half when we got our defense going."

That was the most positive sign. Since the last game at Cole Field House, a 112-92 win against Virginia on March 3, the Terps had struggled. They had to rally in the second half to beat Florida State in their ACC tournament opener, then got back-doored to death in an 86-82 loss to N.C. State in the semifinals.

The Terps smacked Siena around early in the first half Friday night, just enough to let the Saints know they couldn't win, but still couldn't put together a big game against the No. 16 seed.

But that changed last night. Maryland's full-court pressure was relentless. The Terps forced 14 turnovers and converted them into 15 points. More importantly, Maryland controlled the game's tempo. By the beginning of the second half, Wisconsin had to get out of its slow-paced, high-post, constant-head fake offense, a style that had given Maryland problems in the past.

The Badgers had to run a little, and they got run out of MCI Center.

"The coaches did a great job of scouting," said Maryland guard Juan Dixon. "They watched the St. John's game and they knew that Wisconsin didn't like a lot of pressure."

There is a new Dixon on the court these days. He had an All-America regular season, but now is obsessed with fulfilling his dream of winning a national title. He wants to carry the Terps on his back. You can see it in his eyes. Dixon had 29 points Friday night and 29 more last night.

He shot 10-for-19 from the field, including 4-for-7 from three-point range. It was only fitting that he broke Len Bias' all-time Maryland scoring record with a three-pointer with 4:09 left in the first half. His shooting display was so effective that the Wisconsin players stopped guarding and started watching him midway through the second half.

The MCI Center should have charged them admission.

"You have to watch out with great shooters and great scorers, that they don't just determine their game by how well the ball goes in the basket," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "Juan is always stealing the basketball, getting key rebounds for us and making good passes. I think he has a good combination to his game with an amazing ability to put the ball in the basket."

Sophomore forward Chris Wilcox also found his groove, which has to make Williams happy heading into the regionals. After weeks of struggling, Wilcox had 18 points and seven rebounds. He got the crowd into the game with several vicious dunks in the first half, after Maryland had started the game in a stupor.

But maybe the night's most unheralded effort belonged to senior forward Byron Mouton, who held Wisconsin guard Kirk Penney to 3-for-14 shooting and nine points. When the Badgers tried to run Penney off picks, Dixon or Nicholas was waiting on the other side.

Maryland will need another strong defensive effort from Mouton against Kentucky's Keith Bogans, who scored 19 points in the Wildcats' 87-82 second-round win against Tulsa. It will be interesting to see whom Williams matches up against Wildcats forward Tayshaun Prince, who scored a career-high 41 points in the same game.

But those are problems down the road.

For a night, Maryland looked good again. The Terps dominated Wisconsin, a team that had won seven of its previous eight games and was playing with confidence after road wins against Minnesota and Indiana late in the season.

But Maryland took the Badgers apart easily. The Terps looked a lot like the team that crushed Florida State and Virginia late in the season, when some were asking if they had peaked too soon.

The Terps don't think so. They still see themselves improving and winning the national championship.

"We're a mature team," Mouton said. "We've got a lot of athletic ability here and a lot of confidence. Right now, this team is unbeatable. That's the way we feel."

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