Sloppy or not, UM finds way to clean up

March 23, 2002|By Mike Preston

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Maybe it's just the University of Maryland's year, one of those seasons when almost everything goes right.

No major injuries. No off-the-court problems. No difficult internal matters.

The top-seeded Terps played No. 4 seed Kentucky in their Sweet 16 game last night, and Maryland was far from impressive. Terps point guard Steve Blake was awful. Forward Byron Mouton continued to have problems finding his jumper, and center Lonny Baxter ran into foul trouble in the final 10 minutes of the game.

And the Terps still won, 78-68, before 29,633 at the Carrier Dome.

At this point of the season, that's all that matters. Duke looked pretty for most of its game against Indiana on Thursday night, but last night the Blue Devils were in Durham, N.C., watching the Terps on TV.

It looked like the Terps had hit their stride last week when they defeated Wisconsin, 87-57, to advance to the Sweet 16. But this Maryland team doesn't have a true identity, except as winners.

The can play many ways. They can pound the ball inside. They can run the fast break. They can play great defense.

Or sometimes they can play poor defense and look ragged offensively. But yet Maryland keeps winning.

"I think right now we have to take it one game at a time," said Maryland forward Chris Wilcox. "This next game we play, we are just going to have to come out and play hard. I think we have the experience of being in the final eight. We just have to go like I said and play hard, and everything will come to us."

No one can ever accuse this team of not playing hard. The Terps (29-4) were involved in a tight game with the Wildcats (22-10) most of last night, and they got the usual solid performance from guard Juan Dixon (19 points), and another good effort from Wilcox (15 points). But the true Most Valuable Player was reserve guard Drew Nicholas, who continued his often unheralded trend of hitting key baskets.

After the Terps tied the score 21-21 with 8:26 left in the first half, it was Nicholas who hit a three-pointer with 7:51 left to open up a lead Maryland never surrendered until the second half. But his biggest basket came with 9:50 left in the game when he connected on another three-pointer that put Maryland ahead 56-53 and gave the Terps momentum heading into the stretch.

Nicholas also ran the offense a lot in the second half when Maryland coach Gary Williams benched Blake for taking some ill-advised shots. Nicholas played 20 minutes and finished with eight points.

Blake wasn't the only Maryland player having trouble. Baxter picked up his third foul with 10:09 left in the game, and didn't return until the next five minutes. Mouton threw up several air balls on short jumpers, and Maryland didn't get much scoring from its bench in the second half.

But Kentucky just didn't have enough to make a solid run late in the game. With the Wildcats trailing 70-65, Kentucky center Jules Camara was called for traveling with 1:28 left. Then the Wildcats' two best players, forward Tayshaun Prince and guard Keith Bogans, failed to convert a two-on-one break as Bogans dropped a pass under the basket that would cut the deficit to two with 1:08 remaining.

That's when you knew this game was over, that it was meant for Maryland to move on to play Connecticut in the East Regional final tomorrow.

"We just wanted to go out there and give it all we had for the whole 40 minutes," said Prince. "I thought we played a good 36-37 minutes. We just didn't make the plays when they counted."

When it comes to the postseason, most of us would like to see our teams peaking and blowing out opponents while moving on to the championship round. But that's not Maryland's style.

The Terps win whatever way possible. On nights when this team is in harmony, especially when Blake has the offense in gear and Wilcox is dominating down low, the Terps are practically unbeatable, as when they destroyed Duke, 87-73, in their second game of the series in the regular season.

Then there are nights when their depth on the inside with Baxter, Wilcox and forwards Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle, wear teams down.

But even when they are sloppy, the Terps can still win against a team that has as much tradition as Kentucky. Maryland shot only 44.1 percent from the field last night, and hit only five of 16 three-point attempts. They were out-rebounded, 38-36, and committed 14 turnovers.

But that's all irrelevant. Because with this team, they believe they can win whether they look pretty or not.

"Personally, I just played bad," Blake said. "There wasn't too much pressure, I just made mistakes. I have to play better next game, but it is good to see that when I play bad, other guys can step up and get a big win like this."

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