COLLEGE PARK -- Today marks the final game of 1998 for the No. 5 Maryland Terrapins. It's their last nonconference opponent, at least in the regular season. And the final tuneup before the Jan. 3 showdown against ACC foe and second-ranked Duke.
One game after their school-record, 75-point blowout win over North Texas, the Terrapins figure to get another breather this afternoon when South Carolina State visits Cole Field House.
"This is a very important game because we have to win this game, obviously, before we go into our conference schedule," said Maryland point guard Terrell Stokes. "You can't go into a conference game with a loss. That's like Green Bay going into the playoffs with a loss -- that's going to hurt their chances of winning the Super Bowl."
Don't count on the Terrapins Profit getting any of their high hopes hurt this afternoon.
South Carolina State, the defending tournament champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, does enter the game with a 4-5 record. Three of those wins are against MEAC opponents, and in two games against representatives of the Atlantic Coast Conference, South Carolina State has lost by an average of 44.5 points (a 120-56 loss at Duke on Nov. 21, and a 72-47 season-opening loss at Clemson on Dec. 21).
On the other hand, the Terrapins (12-1) seem to have rebounded nicely following their sole loss at Kentucky on Dec. 12. While the last two opponents haven't been particularly strong, the two wins could be serving as confidence boosters for senior forward Laron Profit and others.
Profit led the Terrapins with 21 points in the win over Princeton, and started the North Texas game strong in finishing with 24 points.
In order for Maryland to be a legitimate contender for the ACC championship, Profit is going to have to step up his game during crunch time.
"When Prof gets off, look how we win," said junior guard Steve Francis. "I still don't think anybody can stop him, if he plays with confidence. When he does that, the sky's the limit."
Another plus has been the play of freshman forward Lonny Baxter, who scored a career-high 28 points against North Texas with a perfect game -- he hit all 10 of his field goals (school $H record for made shots without a miss), and all eight of his free throws.
Baxter averages just 11 minutes in the Terrapins' nine-man rotation, but his development and physical presence could earn him more minutes.
"He's a guy that can play four positions, and he's very versatile," Francis said of Baxter. "This was the first time [Wednesday] that everybody really saw it. I've known Lonny for five years, and you'll see a lot of that the next three years."
In addition to looking to extend the nation's longest nonconference home winning streak to 64 games, the Terrapins also want to refine their game before the ACC schedule fully kicks in. For players such as Francis, Baxter, Danny Miller and Juan Dixon, it is their first experience playing in one of the nation's top conferences.
"In order for us to be prepared for Duke, we have to beat South Carolina State," said Francis, who had 17 points, eight assists and six rebounds on Wednesday. "They're coming in here to win, to upset the fifth-ranked team in the country. We have to take it away from them early, put the pressure on them."
That ranking may be on the rise, with two recent losses by third-ranked Kentucky.
"We could possibly move up," Francis said. "That would be great. But we have a lot more work to do."
Opponent: South Carolina State
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
Time: 1: 30 p.m.
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WMAL (630 AM)
Pub Date: 12/27/98