Terps out to keep ball rolling

ACC tournament champs have 5-game win streak

UTEP next in NCAAs

`We've got to get ready to play'

Young team, seeded 4th, still has to prove it can handle recent success

NCAA Tournament

March 18, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

DENVER - To the Maryland Terrapins, the task is simple. Feed off of the stunning surge of momentum they created while making history at last weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, yet find a way to push aside the sweetest memory of their young careers.

Duplicate the passion and reckless abandon they displayed while winning three games in 42 hours and earning the third official ACC title in school history and second in 20 years. Run the offense with the same hustle and confidence that helped the Terps shoot with proficiency they had not shown virtually all season. And do not take anything for granted.

Over the past two weeks, the 19th-ranked Terps (19-11) have built a season-best five-game winning streak, negating the string of failures that temporarily tossed Maryland onto the NCAA tournament bubble. Now, as the No. 4 seed in the Phoenix Regional opening its 11th consecutive tournament ride, Maryland must check its youth at the door once more and prove it can handle its sudden run of success.

The 13th-seeded UTEP Miners will be waiting for the Terps at Pepsi Center today in a first-round contest that should reveal much about Maryland's maturity. In a single-elimination setting, the Terps get no more second chances.

"It's asking a lot [of the players] to come down from that cloud. That's a pretty high cloud," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "I would say we got as much attention for that [overtime victory over Duke in the ACC tournament final] as we did when we won the national championship. I didn't expect it would be like that.

"But you have to get over it. We practiced better [yesterday] than we did [on Tuesday]. We've got to get ready to play. That's all there is to it. UTEP is looking at us and seeing a pretty big target."

"You can't put too much pressure on yourself," said Terps sophomore point guard John Gilchrist, who inspired Maryland to upset victories over top three seeds Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest in Greensboro, N.C., and was named the tournament MVP. "I try not to even think about [the ACC tournament]. You've just got to go out and play the game the way that got you here in the first place."

It remains to be seen how the Terps handle playing at a local time (10:40 a.m.) more suited for breakfast. And playing at mile-high altitude two time zones away from home. And facing a Miners (24-7) squad that has undergone an amazing turnaround from last year's 6-24 finish under second-year coach Billy Gillispie. And doing it all just four days after completing their shocking ACC work.

UTEP, the Western Athletic Conference champion, is not blessed with Maryland's size or its depth, but the Miners have enough weapons to throw a serious scare into possibly the hottest team in the 64-team field.

Junior guard Filiberto Rivera, last season's junior college player of the year who was recently named to the Puerto Rico national team, pushes the ball up the floor in a way that reminds Williams of North Carolina point guard Raymond Felton. Rivera leads the team with 4.7 assists per game and ranks third on the team in scoring (11.2).

Each of UTEP's starters, which includes 6-foot-8 sophomore center John Tofi - the Miners' tallest player - averages between 8.2 points and 11.6 points. The heaviest hitter is 6-5 junior swingman Omar Thomas, the all-time leading scorer in the history of junior college basketball, who comes off the bench and leads the team in scoring (15.5), despite playing just 22.4 minutes per game.

"We're not going to play. We're just here to practice. We're going to get some good media food and then we're going home," Gillispie said with a wink. "We've got to slow down [Maryland's offense], take their transition away. It's a monumental task, but I guarantee our guys will be ready to play and go hard."

Maryland's best bet is to keep doing what it has done lately. Over the past two weeks, the Terps have fed off of their pressure defense with excellent transition play, but also have looked like a team that finally has grasped and begun to trust the flex offense.

Their passing, screening and cutting have been crisp. They are relentlessly working the ball inside, either off of drives by the likes of Gilchrist or by dumping the ball down low to senior center Jamar Smith. Their patience and extra passing has left with them open shots, which they are making. Their aggressiveness in going hard to the basket has created foul-shooting chances, which they are not wasting.

After entering the ACC tournament as the league's worst shooting team from three-point range and at the foul line, Maryland reversed course by hitting 47.5 percent of their three-point attempts and 75.5 percent of the 98 free throws they took in three games.

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