UM-UConn: This time, East on line

Rematch of Dec. game has region's top 2 seeds eyeing trip to Atlanta

Terps learn from Fri. scare

Huskies have won 12 in row

`they are lot better, but so are we'

Ncaa Tournament

March 24, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The only things standing between the Maryland Terrapins and a return to the Final Four are a great open-court player, an intimidating shot-blocker, some good complementary parts and a proven coach who has molded a youthful team impressively and is always dangerous as an underdog.

Top-seeded Maryland can smell Atlanta now. The Terps (29-4), bursting with talent and experience and the confidence that comes with building the best record in school history, must pass one more test today by beating scrappy, much-improved, second-seeded Connecticut in the East Regional title game.

Then it's on to the bright stage, where Maryland plans to keep going until it cuts down more nets on April 1 at the Georgia Dome after securing the first national championship in school history.

"Our goal is to make it back to Atlanta and win the national championship. We know how to win games. We know what it takes to get there," Maryland senior guard Juan Dixon said.

"We understand that, when we don't play hard, teams can come up and get us," Terps backup guard Drew Nicholas said. "We also understand that when we're playing hard and playing well, not a lot of teams can stick with us."

The Terps did not play particularly well while getting by fourth-seeded Kentucky, 78-68, in the regional semifinal round on Friday night. Starting with a subpar effort from point guard Steve Blake, the Terps missed and rushed too many shots, before going back inside and letting big men like Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox take over.

But Maryland never let up and never panicked, much as the Terps have refused to do throughout this special season. They dug in and played defense, shutting down Wildcats stars Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans in the second half. They made 14 of 15 free throws in the second half. They had four players score in double figures. They moved on.

Today at 5 p.m., the Terps will take aim at a familiar force with so much on the line. When the Huskies (27-6) came to MCI Center in early December for the BB&T Classic, they were an untested 3-0 squad with a promising freshman center in 6-foot-9 Emeka Okafor and a dynamic sophomore forward in 6-7 Caron Butler.

The Terps got Okafor in foul trouble, rattled point guard Taliek Brown, and wore down Connecticut inside while pulling away to a 77-65 victory.

The Huskies, under the guiding hand of 16-year coach Jim Calhoun, obviously learned from their mistakes. Since that night, UConn is 24-5, has won the Big East Conference regular-season and tournament crowns in the same year for the fifth time under Calhoun, and is playing in the Elite Eight for the fourth time under him. The Huskies are riding a 12-game winning streak.

"We have matured a great deal, but we are also playing a much more difficult opponent right now," said Calhoun, who has 626 career victories. "We are a better team, but the question is how much better is Maryland? How hungry are they to get to the Final Four? It would be foolhardy to suggest they haven't gotten better."

Calhoun is no fool. He knows how much the Terps have sharpened their eight-man rotation, how much more involved backup center Ryan Randle is, how much more comfortable Wilcox is since moving into the starting lineup on Dec. 30, how much Byron Mouton has improved over the past three months.

Mouton, who shook off a brief scoring slump with 14 points against Kentucky, was known as a defensive liability a year ago. Now, he has become a stopper. In three tournament games, he has held down three hot scorers. Siena guard Dwayne Archbold, Wisconsin guard Kirk Penney and Kentucky forward Prince shot a combined 13-for-48 (27.1 percent), mainly with Mouton shadowing them.

Now, all Mouton must do is contain the Big East Player of the Year. Butler relied more on fast breaks and put-backs as a freshman. Now he can pull up on a defender as well as go by him, as his 48 percent shooting suggests. He leads the Huskies with a 20-point scoring average and is the key to their success today.

"The main thing for me is to try to stay between him and the basket," Mouton said of Butler. "He is a very slashy player. Every time a shot goes up, I have to find him and know where he is at all times because he is a great offensive rebounder."

"This is a team with a lot more confidence than the first time we played them. They have a lot of wins under their belts since then, and they have won a lot of close games lately," Williams said of UConn. "They've grown together as a team, and I think they are a lot better than they were at the time we played them. But so are we."

As it appeared before the Terps took the floor against Kentucky, Maryland seems to have too many scoring options and too few weaknesses for the Huskies to handle. The Terps have the inside brawn and the outside touch with Dixon and Nicholas. Blake reasonably can be expected to atone for his slip on Friday, after which he stated, "I played like crap, and that's the last time I'll play that way."

Connecticut would like to avoid an overly physical encounter and keep the game in transition, where it can use its quickness to better advantage. That's where players like backup guard Ben Gordon (44.1 percent from three-point range) and forward Johnnie Selvie can excel.

"If it is a wrestling contest, we lose. If we can extend the floor in different ways defensively, if we can run up and down the floor [we can win]," Calhoun said. "We know the difficulties of facing a great Maryland team. They are one of the best teams in America, but come tip-off, we have the opportunity to do something special."

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