UM strategy: handle emotions, Clemson

Seniors end home careers

1st year at Comcast closes

College Basketball

February 25, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - First and foremost, the Maryland Terrapins need to beat visiting Clemson tonight. A loss could severely damage Maryland's late-season push to win a second straight regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title, its seeding in the league tournament and its positioning in the 65-team NCAA tournament.

Clemson has lost its past 10 meetings with Maryland, but the Tigers probably won't be feeling like pushovers. Not after having won three straight games to climb into a fifth-place tie in the ACC with Georgia Tech. Not after beating Virginia on the road last week. And not after battling the Terps long and hard throughout a grueling, 52-47 Maryland victory at Littlejohn Coliseum a month ago.

Outside the lines, the No. 14 Terps (17-7, 9-4), who are tied with Duke in second place, a half game behind Wake Forest, have another battle to win: the pre-game emotion as Maryland concludes its home schedule by honoring its five seniors.

On Senior Night, even coach Gary Williams, he of 25 seasons, 498 victories and the edgy game face, lets the tears flow.

Williams, one year removed from his first NCAA title, will bid a farewell of sorts to the second core of talent that took him to the pinnacle of his career.

A year after Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton took their final bows as seniors in the last game at Cole Field House, point guard Steve Blake, shooting guard Drew Nicholas, small forward Calvin McCall, power forward Tahj Holden and center Ryan Randle will be honored as the curtain falls on the first season at Comcast Center.

"Hopefully, people will remember how important these guys were," said Williams, referring to consecutive trips to the Final Four and 99 victories since the 1999-2000 season started.

"This is a pretty quiet group. Early, I was worried about our emotion as a team. I was bothered by [a lack of] it," he added. "But all these seniors heard about [before the season] was how great those guys were last year. They've had to take everybody's best shot as defending national champions. Nobody has ever had to do that here before."

It certainly is an eclectic group. Blake, Nicholas and Holden have been with the program from the beginning. McCall walked on in the 1999-2000 season and got a scholarship after leaving the football team and helping the Terps to their first Final Four two years ago. Randle came from Allegany Community College last year.

Blake has been the constant, having started at the point since he arrived. He will extend his school record with his 130th start tonight and will add to his school-record number of assists (919). Nicholas, who backed up Dixon for three seasons, is the team's leading scorer this year.

Holden has been a backup, a starter, a backup again and a starter again during a career marred by a foot injury and marked by a knack for coming up big in big games. McCall, whose role expanded this season, is the closest thing to Mouton, with his ability to grab steals, rebounds and make hustle plays. Randle, who rounded out last year's imposing frontcourt, is this team's anchor in the post.

"Sometimes it feels like it's gone by real fast. Sometimes, it feels like I've been here forever," said Blake, the Miami Lakes, Fla., native who is averaging 14.8 points in his past six games and leads the ACC in assists (7.0) and three-point shooting percentage (.432). "I'll definitely look back at my time here and be happy. I've achieved a lot. I made a great decision by coming here."

Said Nicholas, who averages 17.5 points: "We were kind of looked at as the other guys last year. Some people draw comparisons to last year's team, and those expectations just aren't fair. We didn't get a lot of credit we might have deserved before the season. A lot of people probably didn't think we'd be in a position to possibly win the ACC."

With a little help, and by winning its final three games, Maryland just might pull off another regular-season crown. But the Terps expect to take a spirited shot from Clemson (15-8, 5-7).

The Tigers have enough muscle down low and a red-hot point guard in senior Edward Scott (18.2 ppg, 5.7 apg).

Holden, who grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds at Clemson but went scoreless against North Carolina after a career-high 18 points at Duke, plans to savor tonight.

"It will be an emotional game and an emotional night," Holden said. "[My career] has gone by a little faster than I wanted to, but that's life. I wish I could hit pause or stop when the clock hit zero and we won the national championship, but you can't. I'll never get these years back. Life has to go on."

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