COLLEGE PARK -- When it was over, as soon as Maryland had passed its acid test, Terrell Stokes jumped on Gary Williams' back and mussed the coach's hair.
There could be no more apt ending to the story that unfolded on national television yesterday. Because for 32 minutes in a game they had to have, Williams and the Terps had ridden Stokes' young back.
Playing for suspended senior point guard Duane Simpkins, Stokes ran the offense like a maestro, and Maryland throttled Missouri, 91-72, in a game that should play big when the NCAA picks its 64-team tournament field next month.
The 6-foot freshman guard from Philadelphia distributed 12 assists, scored four points, took four rebounds and had two steals and Maryland's only blocked shot of the game.
Stokes received an ovation from the Cole Field House crowd of 14,170 when he came out with 2:06 left. And when it was over, he playfully climbed aboard Williams' shoulders.
"I just love having fun, and I love the game so much," Stokes said of the emotional display. "When you win, that's the most excitement you get. I messed up his hair and he said, 'Don't mess up my hair; it costs me $25 to get it done.'
"The [team's] camaraderie is real good with the coaches."
In his third start, Stokes came within one assist of tying the school record of 13, set by Keith Gatlin in 1984. It was his second straight start since Simpkins was suspended for three games by the NCAA for attempting to repay a university loan in an improper way.
But it wasn't the first time Stokes had toyed with his coach. When Maryland beat Georgia Tech here on Feb. 3, he snapped a towel at Williams' backside. This scene could get to be a ritual by the time Stokes takes over at point guard next season.
"I just hope he stays with towels," Williams said after Maryland notched its 46th consecutive nonconference victory at Cole. "I -- like Terrell because he fights you.
"He reminds me a lot of Michael Adams when I was at Boston College. Michael just wouldn't die. That's how Terrell is developing as a player. It's good to see."
Maryland (13-9) used that attitude to bury the Tigers (16-9) and send a loud message to the NCAA's selection committee. It was a must-win game for the Terps, who are 5-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference with road games against North Carolina State and Clemson this week. The NCAA implications were clear to everyone.
"We were definitely aware of it," said senior Exree Hipp, who scored 14 and harassed Missouri's high scorer, Jason Sutherland, into a seven-point outing.
"Coach talks about the power ratings a lot. We had the 38th-toughest schedule, and we knew if we knocked off Missouri, after they beat Kansas, it would help us. And we beat them pretty good."
Maryland led by as much as 14 in the first half and went up by 22 in the second. The Terps shot 60.3 percent from the field and had 30 assists (on 38 field goals), both season highs. Their pressing defense -- they used a triangle-and-two and an assortment of traps -- forced 24 turnovers, 16 on steals.
There were big performances all around:
* Keith Booth scored 13 and took seven rebounds -- one more than the combined total of Missouri's 7-0 Simeon Haley, 7-1 Sammie Haley and 6-11 Monte Hardge.
* Johnny Rhodes had 21 points, six assists, five rebounds -- and broke his school record for steals in a season with 88. His fourth steal of the day moved him past Gary Payton, formerly of Oregon State, into seventh on the NCAA's all-time list with 322.
* Mario Lucas scored 15 and ended a drought of 15 games without an assist.
* Rodney Elliott scored 15 in 13 minutes off the bench, filling in for a gimpy Obinna Ekezie (sore groin).
Stokes was the guy who set the table, though. He played with the vision of a veteran, which he partially attributed to Simpkins.
"Me and Duane are good friends," Stokes said. "We talk about the situation. He sends me pointers, guard-to-guard talk [during the game]. He says, 'Terrell, penetrate more. . . .' He can see things from the bench. He's like a coach for me."
Still, Simpkins and Stokes play different kinds of games, a fact not lost on their teammates.
"He's a little guy with a big heart," Rhodes said. "He doesn't look to score as much as Duane. He draws everybody to him and dishes off. There was a lot of pressure for him to step in."
Stokes knew the NCAA implications, too.
"We wanted the NCAA to see we can play with the best," he said. "Maybe they'll think twice about us now."