WASHINGTON - The Maryland Terrapins did not exactly walk all over 16th-seeded Siena from start to finish last night, but the Terps still moved on to their next NCAA tournament test with relative ease.
Led by senior guard Juan Dixon, who is now seven points from breaking the all-time school scoring record held by Len Bias after a game-high and season-high 29 points, top-seeded Maryland began its trip through the East Regional by whipping Siena, 85-70, before 18,770 at MCI Center.
The Terps, who had a 13-game winning streak broken by North Carolina State in last week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals, started what they hoped will be a six-game winning streak that culminates with the school's first national championship.
Maryland (27-4), which enjoyed a decided home-crowd advantage some 20 minutes from its campus, will face eighth-seeded Wisconsin in the NCAA's second round tomorrow. With a victory, the Terps would advance to their sixth Sweet 16 round in the last nine seasons.
Maryland was the last No. 1 seed to play in the tournament and a No. 1 seed has never lost in the first round, which wasn't lost on Gary Williams and his players.
"This was a little different for us, sitting around for two days and watching everybody else play," Williams said. "I think there was pressure on the players, whether they admit it or not. We've been hearing for two days how a No. 1 seed has never lost in the first round. How do you explain it if you lose this game? What do you say? I'm going to Mexico? You can't go to Disneyland."
Maryland began its ninth straight trip to the NCAAs by facing a team with the only losing record in the tournament, and Siena (17-19) actually put up an admirable fight for a while. But it was only a matter of time before Maryland began to outclass the Saints with its size, speed, strength and pedigree.
"We really threw a pretty good punch at [Siena] early in the game, the way we ran our offense. And they came right back and matched us," Williams said. "That was pretty impressive. They made us work, which was good. We won, that's what's important. We got [the lead] to 20 and couldn't sustain it. We played very good defense [at times], but we didn't sustain it. Siena has some good shooters. You have to keep trying to get better, even in the NCAA tournament."
As they have done so often throughout a year in which they won their first regular-season ACC title in 22 seasons, the Terps saved their most lethal punch for the second half. Maryland opened the half with a 15-4 run and threw its stifling defense all over the Saints by limiting them to 3-for-12 shooting during that stretch.
During the run, Dixon - the ACC Player of the Year who rebounded from a subpar performance in the conference tournament - made two jumpers and a layup. Point guard Steve Blake hit a three-pointer, and centers Lonny Baxter and Ryan Randle made layups. When it was over, the Terps held a 67-42 lead with 12:30 left.
"Juan is a marked man," Williams said. "We have to find ways to get him open. When a shooter hits a couple early, it gets him going. Juan took advantage of that situation."
To its credit, Siena kept coming after the Terps. After Dixon made his fifth and final three to put the Terps in front 70-46 with 10:55 left, the Saints battled enough to make the final score respectable.
"Siena is a pretty long team," said Dixon, who in addition to being six short of Bias' 2,149 career points also pulled into a tie with Bias for postseason Terps scoring with 168 points. "They have the leading scorer in their conference, and their guys made shots. They were able to keep it close early."
For about six minutes, Siena caused a buzz in the Maryland-dominated crowd by hanging with the Terps, but the inevitable took over as Maryland used its full-court pressure, the outside shooting of Dixon, Blake and Drew Nicholas and its inside bulk to turn an early 18-17 lead into a 52-38 halftime bulge.
Dixon got Maryland rolling immediately by scoring the Terps' first six points and nine of Maryland's first 12, including a three-pointer from the left corner that gave the Terps a 10-8 lead.
The most notable thing about the opening minutes was the way the two teams traded baskets. Siena made eight of its first 10 shots, and after spotting Maryland an 18-10 lead that Dixon gave the Terps with his second three-pointer at the 16:15 mark, the Saints showed some spunk by putting together a 7-0 spurt.
Guard Tommy Mitchell made a three-pointer to start the run. Dwayne Archbold kept it going with a driving, 5-foot bank shot that trimmed the Maryland lead to 18-15 with 15:15 left in the half. Then, after Blake missed a three-point attempt, Prosper Karangwa made a 6-footer, cutting the lead to 18-17.
The talent and athleticism of Maryland began to take over, as the Terps bore down on Siena with their defensive pressure and their inside-outside attack.
The Terps punched Siena with a 13-4 run, starting with a steal and a thunderous dunk by sophomore Chris Wilcox, who took off about 10 feet from the basket before bringing the partisan crowd to its feet. Nicholas, with an assist from the baseline by Dixon, then buried a three-pointer to give the Terps a 24-19 lead, and after Austin Andrews made a 15-foot baseline jumper, Maryland scored eight straight points to take a 32-21 lead with 12:24 left.
Baxter started the run with a layup. Wilcox, courtesy of a 35-foot alley-oop pass from Blake, then converted his second jam of the night. Following one of Siena's 10 first-half turnovers, Nicholas then converted a rare four-point play by making a deep three-pointer despite getting fouled, then made the free throw.
Phil Cavo helped the Saints with a pair of layups and an 18-footer over the next four minutes, as Maryland zeroed in on Karangwa and Archbold, but let some other Siena weapons get loose. Still, the Terps extended their lead to 47-29 with 3:48 left with a 10-4 run, fueled by Blake's three-pointer from the top of the key that made it 39-27 at the 7:30 mark.
After a layup by Cavo, Dixon converted two free throws, then made a three for his 20th point of the half, making it 44-29. Tahj Holden then converted a three-point play after a dunk.
But Maryland, which cleared its bench in the final minute of the half, could not pull away any further from the Saints, who cut Maryland's 18-point lead to 14 with a 9-5 run to close the half.