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The Agony and the Ecstasy

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/16/2000

If you are a dedicated fan of the University of Maryland men's basketball team, well trained in fatalism, you probably understood that the team was going to fall to Temple on Feb. 13. Coming off a brilliant 98-87 win over Duke four days earlier, Maryland was destined to lose. The Terps never pull off big upsets back-to-back, as surely as they never win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, nor advance to the Final Four, nor lay claim to the No. 1 ranking, even for one measly week.

But this time around, the fatalism was tempered with cheerfulness. Partly, it was the lingering glow of the Duke game, the greatest victory of coach Gary Williams' 11 seasons in College Park. Partly, it was common sense: Playing consecutive games against then-No. 3 Duke and No. 19 Temple—on the road, yet—was a singularly brutal piece of scheduling. After winning a shootout with the Blue Devils, the nation's highest-scoring team, the Terps had to abruptly down-shift and grapple with the Owls, the top defensive team. There's no team in the country that would have expected to win both games.

So it was heartening enough that the Terrapins made a decent showing in Philadelphia. The 27 turnovers and .381 shooting were ugly, but Temple always forces its foes to play ugly. And where past Terps teams have lost heart against aggressive, fundamentally sound teams like Temple, this year's players kept scrapping for loose balls and boxing out for rebounds.

After the game, Williams called it "a learning experience," and for once he may have been right. Learning has not been Maryland's strong suit under Williams. His teams generally start strong, muddle through the midseason, and lose their way down the stretch. In situations where learning ability wins games—second halves, rematches, players' senior seasons—the Terps have been damningly, consistently dismal.

Until this season, that is. The current Terrapins began awkwardly, with an 0-3 start in the ACC, including a thorough beating at home by Duke. Three weeks ago, at 2-4 in the conference, a seventh straight NCAA tournament appearance seemed in doubt. Then everything changed. Maryland whacked Florida State on the road, hammered Virginia, rallied from 17 down to avenge an earlier loss to North Carolina State.

The improvement was unmistakable, and somewhat paradoxical: Ever since the wins started adding up, it's been evident that the greatest strength of this year's Terps teams is its shortage of talent. When Williams is flush with players, he indulges himself in all kinds of coaching foolishness. He puts in three-guard sets; he runs his pet pressing defense; he plays petty mind games with his young charges.

With this team, his hands are tied. There are no extra guards to man the endless press, no senior starters to be undermined by hotshot underclassmen. He essentially has one shooting guard (Juan Dixon), one point guard (Steve Blake), one center (Lonny Baxter), and two starting-quality forwards (Terence Morris and Danny Miller). There are a few fill-in guys on the bench—Tahj Holden, Mike Mardesich, Drew Nicholas—but none threaten to crack the starting lineup. Basically, it's a five-man team.

And what that team has done, starting with the Florida State game, has been perfectly straightforward and gimmick-free. The Terps start by banging the ball inside to Baxter. Then Dixon attacks from the perimeter, either driving or spotting up. Morris, who was expected to be the big scorer, rebounds, blocks shots, and picks his spots on offense. Blake spreads the ball around; Miller takes care of whatever odds and ends remain.

After years of vain scheming and almost unrelieved humiliation, this is what it took for Maryland to beat Duke. Baxter muscled up on the Blue Devils in the paint; when they double-teamed him, he passed to the open man on the outside. Miller took good shots and hit them. Morris shot and missed and shot again, with no fear of being benched, till he found his shooting touch in the final minutes to put Duke away.

The star, though, was Dixon. Again and again he broke Duke's Chris Carrawell down, blowing by him with the dribble, then pulling up for a floating jumper in the lane. For the first time since the Joe Smith era, a Terrapin was consistently beating a Blue Devil defender. Steve Francis, Laron Profit, Keith Booth—for all their quickness and leaping ability, they were too busy trapping and blitzing to wear a groove in the Duke defense. But Dixon, 152 pounds of sinew, rolled up 31 points.

It wasn't just the outcome that was different. Past Terp teams played nervously, as if waiting for the other team to figure them out and shut them down. This team, ahead or behind, carries itself with optimism. They seem to have figured out that—between Baxter, Dixon, and Morris—if they keep trying, something will work. They look nothing like the team that was routed by St. John's in the NCAA tournament last March, nor even like the team that lost to Duke a month ago.

So it was that against Temple, after they should have been put away, the Terps scratched out one last chance. Down four in the final minute, Dixon stole an inbounds pass in the paint. Five feet from the basket, he put the ball up, the same floating shot he used to take Duke apart. This one, he short-armed. The Owls grabbed the carom off the front rim, got fouled, and put the game away with free throws. The Terrapins were not good enough to thwart destiny. But they're getting better.

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