SALT LAKE CITY -- He always has been something of an enigma, showing awesome bursts of dominance and awful stretches when he has all but disappeared.
Now Exree Hipp is demonstrating something that has, in part, accounted for his never having missed a game in his three years at Maryland.
Since taking a hard fall in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the 6-foot-8 junior forward has been playing with a pinched nerve in his lower back.
"It's helped me focus a little more," said Hipp, who will start a school-record 90th straight game today. "Instead of relying on my athletic ability, I concentrate on my fundamentals."
The injury hasn't stopped Hipp from playing two of the best back-to-back games of his career.
After scoring 23 points and pulling down six rebounds in a 97-92 overtime loss to North Carolina in the ACC semifinals, Hipp had another fine all-around game in Maryland's 87-63 victory Thursday night against Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA tournament West Regional at the Huntsman Center.
Despite aggravating the injury in the second half against the 'Zags, Hipp finished with 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting, pulled down five rebounds, had three assists and made two steals in 28 minutes.
Hipp, an underrated defensive player, also limited Gonzaga's leading scorer, John Rillie, to 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting, including 3-for-11 on threes.
"I tried to keep him from getting the ball because his reputation was for catching and shooting from anywhere," said Hipp, who took Rillie out of the game early.
Hipp's presence also was a factor considering Joe Smith's absence. The 6-foot-10 All-American was limited to nine points and four rebounds in only 24 minutes and sat out for more than 12 minutes in the second half after being called for his fourth personal with 16:25 to go.
Hipp hopes to have a similar impact in tonight's second-round game against 11th-seeded Texas (23-6), set to begin at approximately 7 o'clock.
In his team's locker room early yesterday morning, Hipp said he wanted the responsibility of guarding Terrence Rencher. Hipp said after yesterday afternoon's news conference that he will, indeed, draw the 6-foot-3 guard.
"The biggest difference is that this year we've put Ex on the other team's top perimeter scorer," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "Last year, there were times when we tried to hide him. He's a 6-7, 6-8 guy with 6-3 quickness and long arms."
It was during the second round of last year's NCAA tournament that Hipp established himself as a player who could be a defensive stopper and an offensive force. In a 95-87 upset of No. 2 seed Massachusetts that propelled the then-10th-seeded Terps into the Sweet 16, Hipp shut down Michael Williams, holding the Minutemen guard to 5-for-12 shooting (1-for-4 on threes) while scoring 19 points himself, 15 in the second half.
"I try to use my quickness and my height to my advantage," said Hipp, who has done that this season against Virginia's Harold Deane and North Carolina's Ishua Benjamin. "I'm not right up in their face, but it does make them think, 'Is he going to block it?' With a guy like Rencher, I'm going to try to force him to go left."
Said Rencher, who became the all-time leading scorer in Southwest Conference history in a 90-73 win over Oregon in the opening round: "I usually don't pay attention to who's guarding me. I don't want to sound braggadocio or anything, but we don't think anyone can stop our guards. I know he [Hipp] is 6-8 and has long arms. I'm going to have to play smart and not try to force anything."
Hipp had one of his best games this season against a team similar to the Longhorns. In the championship game of the Maui Invitational in November, Hipp scored a season-high 25 points against Arizona State. But the Terps lost, in part because of Smith's foul trouble.
Unlike their fans, many of whom already have made their flight and hotel reservations for next week's regional in Oakland, Calif., Maryland players and coaches don't think they have a walkover to the next round. And Hipp knows that Smith will have to play a bigger part in today's game than he did Thursday night.
"You'll see a different Joe Smith on Saturday," said Hipp.
But Maryland, the third seed in
the West, hopes to see the same Hipp who has been there the past two games, and for longer stretches this season. Hipp has improved nearly every aspect of his game, from his points (13.2 to 13.6) to his field-goal percentage (47.2 to 51.5) to his assist-to-turnover ratio (99-67 to 76-80).
One thing that hasn't changed is his ability to play hurt. He has played with sprained ankles and jammed fingers. Before he got to Maryland, Hipp played on what his father, Exree Sr., said was a "cracked ankle" during his junior year at Harker Prep.
"He can play in pain," the elder Hipp said yesterday.
Said Williams: "Ex always has ice somewhere on his body. But I tell you, some guys can't do that. The one thing about Ex is that he always shows up to play."
NOTES: Though some of the Maryland players said they were hoping trainer J. J. Bush would have a supply of oxygen on the bench, as Texas did against Oregon, Williams said he thought it could be a crutch. "I used all the oxygen the last three weeks," joked Williams, who seems to be getting stronger after his two-week bout with pneumonia. . . . Reserve forward Kurtis Shultz said Thursday night that he spent Monday and Tuesday in the hospital when complications from an intestinal virus led to the spitting up of blood.