Terps at home in Sweet 16, but so is foe Michigan State

South semifinal pits titlists of two of past three years

Ncaa Tournament

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

COLLEGE PARK - Their big men have made a comeback, their backcourt appears as reliable as ever, and the Maryland Terrapins are looking fast and loose at a most opportune time, in a place that looks so familiar.

For the seventh time during their 10-year run of NCAA tournament play, Maryland is headed to the Sweet 16. As the No. 6 seed in the South Regional, the Terps could become the only team in America to reach the Elite Eight for three consecutive seasons by beating No. 7 seed Michigan State in the regional semifinals Friday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

The matchup features two of the past three NCAA champions. The Spartans, who crushed No. 2 seed Florida, 68-46, in the second round on Sunday, won the national title in 2000, preceding Maryland's championship run by two seasons. Each team has a run of recent Final Four appearances. Michigan State (21-12) went to the national semifinals three straight times, beginning in 1999. Maryland went in 2001 before winning it last year.

The Terps are going to Texas with no shortage of confidence, after reversing their recent, two-game losing streak with an opening NCAA tournament weekend to remember in Nashville, Tenn.

It began with senior guard Drew Nicholas saving Maryland (21-9) from first-round elimination with a running, buzzer-beating, three-point shot to edge 11th-seeded UNC-Wilmington, 75-73. It ended with a 77-64 whipping of third-seeded Xavier, in which the Terps played their most impressive game in five weeks and possibly ran their most potent offense of the season in the first half.

All in all, between the way Maryland coach Gary Williams schooled Xavier's Thad Matta by jumping the undermanned Musketeers with a 10-man rotation in the opening half, the way the Terps' frontcourt rotation countered All-America forward David West and the way Nicholas and senior point guard Steve Blake maintained the upper hand, the Terps were razor sharp in their Sweet 16 preparation.

"I thought we could outrun [Xavier], and I was going to get 10 guys into the game in the first half and keep up the pace. I didn't want to let them walk the ball up the floor and get it to David West all night," said Williams, who added that Maryland's energy partly came from playing two games in one weekend. Before that, the Terps had played three times since Feb. 25.

"Our whole strategy was get the rebound and run down the floor as fast as we could and wear them down by the second half. We really had good spacing and set good screens. Our passing was crisp. We hit every open guy in the first half. That was as good as we've run our offense."

The Terps had their way in the half-court and full-court game. Ten of their first 14 baskets were assisted. Senior center Ryan Randle further erased his recent slump with a 17-point effort, and he finished the weekend with 32 points and 21 rebounds.

While sprinting to a 45-28 halftime lead, Maryland out-rebounded Xavier 24-14 and scored 28 points in the paint, while the Musketeers shot just 8-for-28. For the night, the Terps committed a season-low eight turnovers. Blake and Nicholas traded clutch baskets and combined for 26 points, 14 assists and 15 rebounds.

Defensively, the Terps allowed 39 combined points to West and small forward Romain Sato, but negated both of them in the first half. They ended shooting a combined 10-for-31. And Maryland's post rotation, starting with Tahj Holden and flowing through backups Jamar Smith and Travis Garrison, fouled West and kept him uncomfortable for most of the evening. Maryland blocked six shots. The Musketeers did not block one.

Finally, Maryland's bench ruled the Musketeers, who got no scoring out of reserves Keith Jackson and Will Caudle. Smith, Garrison and backup Maryland point guard John Gilchrist scored a combined 23 points on 9-for-10 shooting.

"We were just making good passes and making plays. It seemed kind of easy," said Blake, who concluded the weekend with 16 assists and three turnovers and moved into fifth place all-time with 969 career assists. "Even when [Xavier] cut [the Maryland lead] to three at [60-57], we were still on top, and they still had to catch us. That's the way we played."

The Terps, who have a hot backcourt and more experience than any other team in the country, suspect they will need to draw on plenty of it against a deep, physical Michigan State team that took apart a Gators squad that prefers a finesse game. Then again, Maryland's clear message on Sunday was the defending champs, up-and-down for much of the season, are doing fine at the right time.

"Teams are going to give it their best shot to beat the defending national champs. That's something we have to wear on our shoulders," Holden said. "Until we get beat, we're still defending national champs, and we have to play with confidence. We have a lot of guys who have been through it all."

"We're going to use our experience to our advantage. We know how to prepare for a game," said Williams, who has enjoyed the up-and-down ride the season has symbolized. Well, at least one part of it.

"Coaching is highs and lows. That's why coaches are nuts," he said. "There's no in-between. You're either really happy or really down. I'm really happy right now."

Next for Terps

Matchup:No. 6 seed Maryland (21-9) vs. No. 7 seed Michigan State (21-12) in NCAA South Regional semifinals

Site:Alamodome, San Antonio

When: Friday, 9:57 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 3 1/2

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