UM likes athlete within Ibekwe

Freshman always prefers to get jump on competition

March 12, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. - His game needs some polish, and his lanky frame needs some muscle. But freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe clearly has established a place with the Maryland Terrapins.

Ibekwe is the team's backup power forward, and his role is to bring instant energy to the post, where he often obliges his coach with plays that affect a game's momentum. He's a natural shot-blocker and a gifted rebounder, and no one on the Maryland roster can soar and throw down a dunk the way Ibekwe can.

"He's way more athletic than me," said sophomore power forward Travis Garrison, who relinquished his starting job to Ibekwe for seven games in midseason before getting it back. "He jumps so high. He dunks on everybody in practice. He loves to bang inside. He's going to be really good."

Ibekwe is a significant reason the Terps are primed to receive an at-large bid to their 11th consecutive NCAA basketball tournament, and why Maryland won three of its final four regular-season games to finish sixth in the brutally tough Atlantic Coast Conference.

And if Maryland upsets third-seeded Wake Forest (19-8, 9-7 ACC) tonight in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, the 6-foot-9 kid from Carson, Calif., the son of Nigerian immigrants who dreamed of being in the high-powered ACC while playing his high-flying game for Carson High School, probably will have made an impact on the proceedings.

Ibekwe is the only freshman to have played in all of Maryland's 27 games. He leads the team in blocked shots (36), despite ranking seventh on the squad with an average playing time of 13.1 minutes.

He matched a career high with 10 rebounds in a victory over Clemson that started Maryland's recent surge. His nine-point, eight-rebound performance in just 17 minutes was pivotal Sunday, when the Terps (16-11, 7-9) in all likelihood clinched their NCAA tournament berth with a come-from-behind 70-61 victory over Virginia.

"I play with my heart. I'm always trying to get the crowd going, always trying to get my teammates going," Ibekwe said. "Coach [Gary Williams] has been putting me in, so he must think I'm ready. I'm coming along."

Ibekwe plans to try adding some weight to his 211-pound body. A lack of bulk has left him at a disadvantage in the paint against his older, more physically mature counterparts. But that limitation has never stopped Ibekwe from asserting his talent freely.

From the season's outset, it was obvious Ibekwe possessed one fundamental trait. If he caught the ball in the neighborhood of the rim, he was going to the basket - hard, and with a slam in mind. Often, that type of aggressiveness would cause him to get into foul trouble quickly. But he has tempered his activity and avoided foul problems of late.

"He's still not the strongest guy in the league, but he was never afraid, and he never didn't work hard," Williams said of Ibekwe. "If he made a foul, it was because he was trying to be aggressive. You can live with that. It's hard to get a guy to be aggressive. You can always tell him to turn it down.

"[Ibekwe] has got the capability of the blocked shot, the incredible follow-up, just a basketball play that has nothing to do with your offense. He just makes a play. You need a guy like that."

Ibekwe, who said he would like to start his own business one day, comes from a background marked by work ethic and athleticism. His mother, Agatha, is a nurse. His father, Augustine, is a social services worker in Los Angeles. His older brother, Onye, recently decided to transfer from Oklahoma State so he could be closer to home while playing basketball at Long Beach State.

A Parade All-American who averaged 19.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.4 blocks while leading 23-4 Carson High to the Los Angeles city semifinals as a senior, Ibekwe said he had his eye on the high-profile ACC for some time, calling the league "the best competition in the world."

"Coach Williams didn't promise me any playing time. He just wanted me to come in and earn it on the court," Ibekwe said. "Part of my mentality is I like to come into the paint and throw it down. I'm always trying to make something happen. But I'm learning to take my time and relax more, go up and down the court and let the game flow."

Williams has been impressed with Ibekwe's improving all-around game, from his ball-handling and his shooting proficiency to his footwork and defensive positioning. Even though part of Ibekwe's game consists of an unorthodox jump shot that starts from behind his head, he is still shooting a solid 51.5 percent from the field. His 50.0 percent free-throw shooting is another story.

Williams even said Ibekwe could end up pushing Nik Caner-Medley for the starting job at small forward.

"Ekene really has good skills. He's gotten to where he's doing a lot of things," Williams said. "I don't care how big my [small forward] is. We'll put the best five guys on the floor. We can always adjust."

Terps tonight

ACC tournament quarterfinal: Maryland (16-11, 7-9) vs. Wake Forest (19-8, 9-7)

Site: Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum

Time: 9:30

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/ WBAL (1090 AM)

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