Winter usually is the worst time of the year to be a Baltimore sports fan. The city lost its NBA franchise, never had an NHL franchise. And the scene turns especially bleak when the one winter team everyone roots for, the Maryland men's basketball team, is a dud.
That was the expectation this season, especially after the Terps were picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference by the writers who cover the ACC. But then the games started. A 22-point comeback at North Carolina. Another wildly improbable upset at Wake Forest. Suddenly, winter is fun.
Two highly ranked opponents, two hostile arenas, two electrifying victories. It doesn't happen in college basketball, where the advantage of playing at home is more pronounced than in most sports. For their next trick, perhaps the Terps will melt snow.
Maryland, ranked No. 7 in the latest Associated Press poll, is everything you'd want in a college team -- youthful yet poised, talented yet unselfish, a natural extension of its senior leader, former Dunbar High star Keith Booth.
Tonight, the Terps make their only appearance in the city this season, facing Penn at the Baltimore Arena. It will be Booth's final collegiate game in his hometown. As the player who revived Baltimore's pipeline to College Park, he will return a hero.
Even on a day he missed 12 of 14 shots, Booth created the season's defining moment in Sunday's 54-51 victory over Wake Forest. He did it the old-fashioned way, too, employing one of the game's most time-honored virtues -- finding the open man.
Three defenders collapsed on Booth as he drove to the basket in the closing seconds. Instead of trying to draw a foul, he passed to sophomore Laron Profit, who hit the game-winning three-point shot at the buzzer -- or maybe a split-second after.
The victory improved Maryland's record to 15-2, the best start in school history. Not even with Joe Smith were the Terps this hot. Not even with John Lucas, Buck Williams or any of the other All-America players they sent to the NBA.
This team might not produce any NBA stars, but that's part of its appeal. The players come from as far away as Kaunas, Lithuania, and Port Harcourt, Nigeria. But they're of remarkably one mind on the court.
If the best part about sports is its unpredictability, then Maryland is a classic example of why the games are played. Smith would be a senior if he had remained in school, and the Terps would be a threat for the national championship. Now, they're starting three sophomores and ranked in the Top 10, anyway.
To think, it was just over 10 years ago that Len Bias died, exposing Maryland as a scandal-ridden program. It was 1989 that coach Gary Williams inherited a team about to be hit with NCAA sanctions. And it was four years ago that the Terps finished 2-14 in the ACC.
Smith almost single-handedly revived the program, but he departed after his sophomore year, and the Terps were lost without him. They had four seniors last season, but the team never meshed, and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
As recently as last summer, Williams seemed to be losing his grip on the program. He fired his top recruiter, assistant coach Art Perry. And he faced criticism for losing top Maryland prospects like Louis Bullock and Nate James to out-of-state schools.
Williams countered that he was still bringing in top players, and this team supports his claim. Profit and Terrell Stokes are future stars, and the third sophomore starter, Obinna Ekezie, is such a quick learner, he's pursuing a business/engineering degree.
Junior Sarunas Jasikevicius improved dramatically after playing for the Lithuanian under-22 national team last summer. Two other juniors -- Matt Kovarik and former Dunbar High star Rodney Elliott -- happily play supporting roles.
January, and college basketball is known for March Madness. After tonight, Maryland is host to No. 10 Duke on Sunday, then plays at Florida State before returning home for a rematch with No. 4 Wake Forest. Every game will be a battle. Such is life in the ACC.
Still, the Terps already have achieved so much. The early victories over George Washington, California and Georgia Tech. The 41-9 run at the end of the Carolina game. The 27-8 lead over Wake Forest and the composure they regained after the furious comeback by Tim Duncan and Co.
It's winter in Baltimore. The Ravens' inaugural season is over. Orioles spring training is still a month away. But here's the Maryland men's basketball team, providing Baltimore with a reason to cheer. Here's the Maryland men's basketball team, riding a spectacular wave.
Winning under Williams
E9 Maryland's 10 biggest wins under coach Gary Williams:
Season .... Opponent ............... Score ..... Site
1989-90 No. 21 North Carolina ...... 80-76 ... Chapel Hill, N.C.
1991-92 No. 10 North Carolina ...... 82-80 ... College Park
1993-94 No. 15 Georgetown .......... 84-83* .. Landover
No. 12 Georgia Tech ........ 91-88 ... Atlanta
1993-94 No. 22 Saint Louis-x ....... 74-66 ... Wichita, Kan.
1993-94 No. 9 Massachusetts-x ...... 95-87 ... Wichita, Kan.
1994-95 No. 1 North Carolina ....... 86-73 ... College Park
1995-96 No. 11 North Carolina ...... 84-78 ... Chapel Hill, N.C.
1996-97 No. 13 North Carolina ...... 85-75 ... Chapel Hill, N.C.
1996-97 No. 2 Wake Forest .......... 54-51 ... Winston-Salem, N.C.
*-overtime; x-NCAA tournament.
Pub Date: 1/21/97