Williams student Ibekwe aces exam against El Paso

Freshman `sponge' soaks Miners off bench with 4 blocks, 2 dunks for UM

Ncaa Regional


March 19, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

DENVER -- The best thing about freshman Ekene Ibekwe - in Gary Williams' opinion - is not his quickness. It's not his potential, and it's not his maturity.

Those are all fine qualities, to be certain. But none of them can compare with Ibekwe's willingness, in the middle of a game, to look his red-faced coach directly in the eye, and listen.

"He's one of our best students," Williams said. "He wants to learn. He's like a sponge on the bench. He looks you right in the eye."

Which, to be honest, is no easy task sometimes. Williams teaches at high volume. Screw up, and he can be as fiery and as intense as any coach not named Bob Knight. Some players nod their head and stare at their sneakers, but not Ibekwe. From the first word to the last, he's locked in.

All the information he gleaned from those staring contests was front and center yesterday during Maryland's 86-83 victory over Texas-El Paso, especially in the second half of the NCAA tournament first-round game.

Ibekwe (pronounced ih-BECK-way) had two dunks, four blocks, a steal and six rebounds during a stretch where the Terps were fighting for their tournament lives. Without the 6-foot-9 forward from Los Angeles, it's very likely that UTEP, not Maryland, would be preparing for a second-round matchup with defending national champion Syracuse tomorrow.

"He's still figuring out how good he is," Williams said. "I think he's improved 30 to 40 percent over the year."

Even with that dramatic leap, Williams said Maryland has only begun to tap into Ibekwe's potential. In practice this season, Ibekwe has been a force, grabbing offensive rebounds, changing shots and suffocating his man on defense. He looked so good, Williams inserted him into the starting lineup ahead of forward Travis Garrison for seven straight games in midseason.

But sometimes aggressive to a fault, Ibekwe would come into a game, pick up three fouls, and have to sit down before he had the chance to showcase any of his talent.

"I think just the speed of things was tough at first," Ibekwe said. "I'm not rushing as much anymore. I feel more confident when I'm out there. I know what to do with the ball now."

Ibekwe's first dunk, which came off a fast-break feed from freshman guard D.J. Strawberry, gave Maryland a 59-51 lead with 14:58 to play, but his second stuff was a thing of beauty. With 11:54 remaining, Ibekwe posted up UTEP forward Omar Thomas at the top of the key, took the entry pass from Nik Caner-Medley and, in one fluid motion, spun to the basket and flushed it with authority.

"It just felt good to make a difference," Ibekwe said. "My motto when I'm out there is always `For the Team.' I know I have to wait my turn, but I'm also trying to be an impact player when I'm out there."

Though Ibekwe scored only five points, he took away at least six from UTEP, rotating over on defense to swat away layups three times in the second half.

"He's just learning how to leave his man and get the guy driving down the lane," Williams said. "[He's learning] to block his shot without giving up a layup to his [own] man. ... Not many guys are 6-9 and have that quickness to the ball. It's not how high you get up, it's how quick you get to the ball."

The son of Nigerian immigrants who came to the United States before he was born, Ibekwe learned the game on the tough outdoor courts of Los Angeles, battling daily against his older brother, Onye, who is a sophomore on the basketball team at Long Beach State.

Williams was originally concerned Ibekwe might get homesick this season being so far away from his family, but so far, Ibekwe has handled everything that's been put in front of him.

"I'm not surprised at all with the way he played today," said Terps senior center Jamar Smith. "I've seen him do that stuff all the time in practice. It just was a matter of taking it to the game."

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