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8 Upper

It Lives Again

By Tom Scocca | Posted 3/21/2001

With all due apologies to the NCAA's marketing division and its omnipresent commercials, I'm not so sure that If It Happens to My Team, It Happens to Me. I don't know for certain that I survived the Maryland Terrapins' first-round game against George Mason. The Terps must have made it, as my television showed them playing Georgia State two days later. But I may have been dead on the living-room floor by then.

It would be inaccurate to call the Terps' 83-80 win a thriller. A thriller, in sports as in movies, is supposed to be exhilarating. This was just gut-wrenching, like a horror flick--the kind of low-budget screamer where everything should be just fine for the principals, as long as they don't do anything stupid. But the principals are irresistibly drawn to do stupid things. What's that bloodcurdling noise in the basement? I dunno, but we'll be fine if we don't unlock the--wait! Don't open it, Lonny Baxter! Nooo! Oh my God, it's got Terence Morris . . .

"It," in this case, was 30-year-old George Mason center George Evans, who spent 33 minutes abusing Maryland's inside players the way Steve Nash abused the Terp backcourt in the '96 tournament. Evans muscled Baxter into submission and Morris into invisibility, making more shots (10) and free throws (seven) than the two Terps even attempted. With Mason hanging close to Maryland, Terps fans were flinching en masse. If the game came down to one play--as it had to, as it would--how could the Terps keep Evans from scoring?

As in a slasher pic, it played out in a series of bizarre reversals: Evans scored off the offensive glass to put Mason up by one; Steve Blake answered with a three-pointer. The clock was under one minute. On Mason's next possession, Byron Mouton stole the ball in the paint. In the same instant, Evans collided with Juan Dixon.

The physics favored Evans, who stands nearly half a foot taller than Dixon and weighs 60 more pounds. But anatomy saved the Terps: The point of impact was Dixon's elbow, meeting Evans' solar plexus. And there is no elbow like a skinny man's elbow. Evans crumpled.

The horror-movie villain always bounces back from the first apparent death blow, of course. So a few commercial breaks later--less than 10 seconds in game time--Evans limped gingerly back onto the floor. Soon after, with the Terps' lead trimmed to one, Morris bricked two free throws, and George Mason had the ball with the shot clock off. Evans (Noooo . . . ) set up on the left side of the lane. Mason point guard Tremaine Price tried to feed him for the winning shot. The pass was off- target; Evans, still looking jangled, couldn't react in time. It went right between his ankles, out of bounds. Maryland ball. Maryland ball.

From the Potomac to the Susquehanna, jaws hung slack. The Terps had put in a classic Gary Williams tournament performance: fearful, passive, and tactically unprepared. They had clanked the two biggest free throws of the game. And--after two Dixon free throws and a last futile heave by Mason--they were still alive. They had laid an egg, and it was OK.

That was due mainly to Mouton, the Tulane transfer, who put up 22 points. The former go-to scorer for the Green Wave is usually the fourth option in the Terps offense, but he stepped up to fill the vacancy left by Baxter and Morris. And the backcourt chipped in enough heroics to do the rest.

Perhaps the fans in Durham, N.C., or East Lansing, Mich., are breathing easier after watching their top-seeded teams crush their opponents. But the Terps looked raggedy all weekend, even against Lefty Driesell's outmanned, undersized Georgia State team. Baxter and Morris, with a pronounced height advantage against the Panthers, combined to take 27 shots, but they missed 15 of them. There is considerable room for improvement.

But there's also room for hope. Blake and Dixon are looking more and more like a tell-your-grandkids kind of backcourt--like Dawkins/Amaker or Corchiani/Monroe. Blake had seven points and seven assists against Georgia State; Dixon had 14 points, six assists, five rebounds, and four steals. And each made one play so brilliant the announcers seemed to miss it: Blake firing a bounce pass the full length of the baseline, corner to corner, to get Mouton a three; Dixon lobbing to Chris Wilcox, then flashing down the lane to tip in the rebound when Wilcox missed the shot.

There may not be guards in the tournament who can outplay the Terps'. Unfortunately, Maryland's survival in the West regional will depend on its front line. Up next is Georgetown, a team as elegant and effective as a crowbar. The Hoyas are big and hard-nosed, and that's all. Watching them play Arkansas, I lost count of how many times they tried and failed to take the lead down the stretch. A team that was any good at offense couldn't have taken the strain, but Georgetown was unfrustratable. It just stuffed the Razorbacks and tried again, and again, and again, till it worked.

If the Terps get through that, they will probably meet Stanford, a team I jokingly--jokingly--dismissed last week. The Cardinal is ranked No. 2 in the nation. Its players are tall and good. Its worst foul shooter, among the regulars, shoots 67 percent. (Its best shoots 94.) As St. Joseph's cruelly learned, Stanford is almost impossible to finish off. Then again, last Thursday, it seemed impossible that the Terps would get even this far.

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