Terps short of greatness but not grit Overmatched by Ariz., UM fights to finish in down-then-up season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When Maryland concluded its regular season three weeks ago by pounding Temple at the Baltimore Arena, Rodney Elliott received a curtain call from his hometown crowd and a warm embrace from Gary Williams.

Williams was on the verge of tears that afternoon, tears of appreciation. He is extraordinarily hard on his players and assistants, but he has an affinity for teams that come together and players who exceed expectations, and he got both in this season's squad and "Noodles," Elliott's nickname since before he even got to Dunbar High.

Williams will always have a soft spot at his alma mater for the 1993-94 Terps, the Joe Smith-Keith Booth freshman team that signaled a rebirth at Maryland. He had a similar affection for this team, which saw its season ended Thursday night by defending NCAA champion Arizona, 87-79, in the West Regional semifinals.

The Wildcats, with their All-America genes, were up 14 with 16 minutes to play. The Terps rallied and trimmed the difference to one with 10 minutes left, and even though the comeback wasn't enough, would Maryland have shown that kind of grit 10 or 11 weeks ago?

Maryland was ranked No. 20 last week, and could move up a spot or two when the final polls are released March 31. This wasn't some Cinderella story; the Terps were in several preseason Top 20s. But there were plenty of doubters when they were 7-5 and Williams didn't even know who his point guard was.

"Terrell [Stokes] didn't start for a while, and in Washington, D.C., it ranked right up there with the Monica Lewinsky situation," Williams said late Thursday night. "We couldn't have gotten where we did without Terrell. He played well against some of the best point guards in the country."

Stokes wasn't the first point guard to fall short in comparison with Arizona's Mike Bibby. He did have seven assists and one turnover against the Wildcats, however, and his steadier play over the last month was a key to Maryland's late-season surge, as was the focus provided by three seniors -- Elliott, Sarunas Jasikevicius and reserve guard Matt Kovarik.

Elliott showed that there was life after Booth at the power forward spot. He and Jasikevicius didn't do as well as they wanted Thursday before an Arrowhead Pond audience that included NBA coaches and executives Jerry West, Del Harris and George Karl, but they'll get another shot to show their games in two weeks at the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, basketball's version of the pro football scouting combine.

Elliott, Jasikevicius and Kovarik were never considered recruiting catches, but their guidance was of the highest grade.

"Our seniors did a great job," junior center Obinna Ekezie said. "I remember my freshman year, we didn't have that kind of leadership in the senior class. This year, the senior leadership was there."

Elliott was Maryland's most consistent player, in his first season as a starter and three years after he was considered a recruiting risk.

"It's funny how time flies," Elliott said yesterday morning, before he and his teammates went on a shopping excursion to Nike Town. "I'm definitely proud of everything I've done for the university. Hopefully, I'll be remembered as a player who came down from Baltimore and gave it his all."

Despite the loss of Elliott, Jasikevicius and Kovarik, Maryland should be in good shape next season. The most pressing question is at point guard, where Stokes, a two-year starter, could lose his job if Maryland maintains the inside track on Steve Francis, the Allegany Community College star considered one of the nation's best.

Whoever is running the point, he'll have some considerable offensive talent to direct.

Junior forward Laron Profit, who had struggled with his offense in four previous postseason games, showed why he was an honorable mention All-American. Playing on a sore left ankle that he turned in practice last Monday, Profit had a shaky start, but he outplayed second-team All-American Michael Dickerson -- 19 points and 10 rebounds to 12 and five.

Maryland made just 37.2 percent of its shots, its fourth-worst performance of the season. Still, Terence Morris made half of his eight attempts, and three of six three-pointers. If the freshman from Frederick's Thomas Johnson High gets stronger and Williams puts him at the power forward spot, it would make for a sleek forward combination in an era when, as Arizona has shown, the emphasis is on quickness.

"Terence has the potential to be a great player," Elliott said. "His potential is outrageous. The things he does in practice amaze everyone."

Ekezie and freshman backup Mike Mardesich need more time at big-man school. And it will be interesting to see if LaRon Cephas can show any kind of offensive game once he's given the opportunity to play more than two minutes at a time.

Williams could have a highly flexible roster next season. If the bigger players continue to develop, he could keep Profit and Morris on the perimeter, but there will also be some new shooters brought into the mix.

Juan Dixon was a late academic qualifier out of Calvert Hall, and he could be every bit the three-point threat that Jasikevicius was. He'll have four years of eligibility remaining. So will Danny Miller, an early signee out of Mount Holly, N.J., who earned McDonald's All-America honors. He's 6 feet 6, and can put it up.

Maryland also got an early letter of intent from Lonnie Baxter, a 6-8 power forward at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy who at last report was still waiting to get a test score that would qualify him for freshman eligibility. Then there's Francis, who would add to the Terps' options, and the decisions to be made by Williams.

"We think we can be a good basketball team next season," Williams said. "I think we're going to be pretty good."

Maryland's lineup

The Terps' top nine players in 1997-98, with next season's returning players in boldface and key, per-game statistics from this season:

Name .. .. .. .. .. .. .Pos. .. ..Class .. ..Points .. ..Reb. or Ast.

Laron Profit .. .. .. ...F .. ...Junior .. ...15.8 .. .. .. ..5.2 reb.

Rodney Elliott .. .. .. .F .. ...Senior .. ...15.0 .. .. .. ..7.4 reb.

Obinna Ekezie .. .. .. ..C .. . .Junior .. ...12.8 .. .. .. ..6.5 reb.

Sarunas Jasikevicius .. .G .. ...Senior .. ...12.4 .. .. .. ..3.6 ast.

Terence Morris .. .. .. .F .. ...Freshman .. ..7.4 .. .. .. ..3.5 reb.

Mike Mardesich .. .. ....C .. ...Freshman .. ..5.4 .. .. .. ..4.3 reb.

Terrell Stokes .. .. .. .G .. ...Junior .. .. .5.4 ... .. .. .4.7 ast.

Matt Kovarik .. .. .. ...G .. ...Senior .. .. .2.4 .. .. .. ..2.0 ast.

LaRon Cephas .. .. .. ...F .. ...Freshman .. ..0.3 .. .. .. ..1.4 reb.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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