In a zone, Williams makes all right moves

March 25, 2002|By Mike Preston

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Gary Williams can coach. In successive games, he has beaten two of college basketball's best in Kentucky's Tubby Smith and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun.

That's impressive.

So was the job Williams did in directing Maryland to a thrilling 90-82 victory against Connecticut in the East Regional championship game last night at the Carrier Dome.

His moves and strategies might get lost in the euphoria of last night's game, which has to be an ESPN Instant Classic candidate because of its relentless pace, great individual efforts and back-and-forth nature, which included 24 lead changes and 21 ties. But Williams was at his best against one of the best.

On a night when his starting point guard was terrible except at crunch time, when three starters were in foul trouble midway through the second half and Maryland could have lost its composure late in the game, Williams pushed all the right buttons.

He went to a zone defense that caused the Huskies problems late in the first half, and again late in the second half. He was daring by re-inserting Dixon and other starters despite foul trouble. And he stayed with the basic strategy that got him here by continuing to pound the ball inside for most of the game.

Beautiful.

I'm giving Williams The Genius label for a day. I can't give it to him for longer than that because the true Genius in the area (his initials are BB and he works for the Ravens) might get offended. But Williams wouldn't care, anyway, because he doesn't read newspapers.

He leaves that job to his assistants, who were a little irritated that some Baltimore and Washington newspapers gave Smith and Calhoun the edge over Williams in the coaching matchups.

How dare they?

But that he-can't-coach rap seems to have followed Williams to American University, Boston College, Ohio State and Maryland even though he has a 479-271 record in 24 years.

Bob Wade wishes he could have coached like that.

If Williams has had one major problem over the years, it's not going to his bench because he often gets caught up in the emotion of games. But that's not true anymore, especially after last night.

Maryland won two games, the one on the court and the one between Williams and Calhoun.

The Huskies were quicker than Maryland and wanted to spread out the Terps to isolate them one-on-one. But with about seven minutes left in the first half, Williams went to a 3-2 zone, which he likes about as much as he likes Duke.

That zone, however, helped force three turnovers before the half, and Maryland outscored the Huskies 16-10 for a 44-37 halftime lead.

Trailing by three points, Maryland went back to the zone with 4:49 remaining in the game and outscored the Huskies 18-7 for the victory. The Terps were well prepared, knowing where the shooters would be until Calhoun made changes late in the game.

"I thought if we got the game spread that they could not play with us due to our quickness," Calhoun said. "The game actually came to that, but Gary made a nice move and went to primarily a zone."

The zone was somewhat of a new wrinkle, but pounding the ball inside to center Lonny Baxter for 29 points wasn't. Maybe that doesn't sound like a big deal, but the so-called geniuses in sports often abandon what works well. They start believing in those genius labels.

But not Williams. When Huskies forward Caron Butler was sent to the bench along with center Emeka Okafor for his second foul with 5:15 left in the first half, Williams kept going to Baxter, who scored eight points in the last 3:25.

When Okafor committed his third foul a minute into the second half, the Terps went to Baxter for seven points within the next two minutes. "That's what Lonny Baxter has given us for three-plus years," Williams said.

Williams had to work more combinations than a safe cracker in the second half. Forward Chris Wilcox committed his third foul with 16:10 left in the game. Point guard Steve Blake had his third about four minutes later, and Dixon was whistled for his third with 9:37 left.

No one fouled out.

"If you look at what he has done thoughtout his coaching career at American University, Ohio State and Maryland, it's pretty unbelievable," said Terps assistant coach David Dickerson. "In my estimation, he is one of the best coaches out there. Look at what he did tonight in finding all those combinations. He made all the right decisions. That's why he is a great coach."

One of Williams' best moves was allowing Blake to return late in the game and giving him the green light to take a three-point shot with 25 seconds left and Maryland ahead 83-80. Until that point, Blake had been AWOL in the two games here.

He had gotten a shot blocked just minutes earlier and was taken to the hoop by Taliek Brown for a layup with 4:51 remaining, which gave the Huskies a 75-72 lead and forced Williams to put him on the bench.

But Blake hit the three-pointer and later made two foul shots to help close out the victory.

"At the timeout we called at 34 seconds, we were supposed to run this play trying to get Juan Dixon a look coming up, but Steve Blake said, `They're going to play those guys and I think I can get a shot,' and I said, `Go ahead and take it,' " Williams said. "I didn't think he was going to take it from that far out. But Blake's done that a lot for us, making big shots."

Williams was right, and Maryland is going to its second straight Final Four. That's all that counts now. Maybe Williams doesn't have a national title or a conference tournament championship on his resume, but he is in The Show.

Tubby Smith isn't. Jim Calhoun isn't going. And Coach K will be watching from Durham, N.C., or in some TV booth with his buddy, Dickie V.

Last night, Gary Williams was as good as any of them. He was The Genius.

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