COLLEGE PARK -- Even as his 10th Maryland team became the earliest in the program's history to get to 20 wins, coach Gary Williams acknowledged that the status quo wasn't working.
The Terps defeated Virginia, 88-72, before a subdued matinee crowd of 13,594 at Cole Field House yesterday. The game ended the Terps' only losing streak of the season, and began with freshman Lonny Baxter in the starting lineup and senior center Obinna Ekezie on the bench.
"It was based on two things," Williams said of the first alteration he's made to his starting lineup this season. "We were flat, and he [Baxter] had played well. I told the guys earlier in the year, if you work hard, you'll get the opportunity. With Lonny, the way he's been playing is good enough to merit a start."
Change was good for the No. 7 Terps (20-4, 8-3), who flew to the ball, forced 27 turnovers by an inferior opponent and re-established their hold on second place in the Atlantic Coast Conference after ugly Tobacco Road losses at Wake Forest and Duke. Steve Francis had a double double the hard way, as the junior guard had 10 points and 13 assists. Asked when Maryland had last moved the ball that well, Francis pointed to a season-opening rout of Western Carolina, which also happened to be the last time the Terps placed six players in double figures.
One of them was Baxter. The rugged 6-foot-8, 250-pound player out of Washington, D.C., crammed nine of his 14 points into the first five minutes of the second half, when Maryland extended its lead to 17 points. Baxter, who didn't even play in an overtime win at Clemson on Jan. 24, said he learned after warm-ups that he was going to start.
"I wasn't scared at all," Baxter said.
Williams earlier told Ekezie that he wouldn't start. The jovial veteran from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, left Cole without comment but spoke with his hustle, as he dived on the floor for loose balls several times, and had six rebounds to five for Baxter. Ekezie played a season-low 17 minutes, Baxter a season-high 26.
Ekezie was the last Terp to start as a freshman. He had started 90 straight games -- the second-longest streak in the ACC behind Duke's Trajan Langdon -- and 114 of the last 115. The exception was the home finale in his freshman year, when he ceremonially stepped aside for Mario Lucas, one of that season's seniors.
Ekezie had been mentioned in the preseason among the nation's premier big men, but he struggled in last week's losses and Williams had criticized his lack of rebounding zeal. Was there an additional message involved, that if Williams, notoriously averse to change, can bench his senior statesman, he'll sit down anyone?
"Of course," said wing Laron Profit, who made his 56th straight start. "It should be like that."
Profit had 13 points, Ekezie eight and point guard Terrell Stokes five, as the seniors totaled 26 to 36 for the freshmen. Besides Baxter, Juan Dixon got all of his 11 in the last 11 minutes of the first half, and Danny Miller equaled his three three-pointers and had his best point total (11) since Thanksgiving.
"Sometimes the young guys have to step up in situations where we're a little flat," Williams said.
Dixon's first shot of the game, a three from the left wing with 10: 32 left in the first half, put Maryland on top for good at 19-18. The Terps turned a tenuous 25-24 lead into a 48-32 cushion 45 seconds into the second half, but the outcome wasn't clinched until Miller's three with 1: 30 left ignited a game-ending 9-0 run.
The Terps' best movement built that 48-32 lead, as the ball went from Stokes to Profit to Francis to Baxter for the finish.
Francis exulted after Miller fed Baxter for a dunk that got the Terps their first 17-point lead, at 54-37 with 16: 13 left. The finest of Baxter's slams, however, came with 5: 28 left, when he trailed a 3-on-1 break and converted a pass from Francis. His work in transition was a revelation.
Upstart Virginia (13-11, 3-8), which had won three straight to climb out of the ACC cellar, played the last six minutes with five scholarship players available. Coach Pete Gillen got a lift from freshman Chris Williams, who had a game-high 24 points, and the Terps, as the best free throw-shooting team in ACC games missed six of its first 12.
The Terps had some initial trouble against a 2-3 zone and went five minutes in the second half with one field goal, but their talent and pressure were too much for the Cavaliers.
It was Maryland's first game at Cole in 10 days. The Terps go right back on the road, for a game Wednesday at N.C. State, and the coach was noncommittal about his lineup. Who will start at center?
"We'll see," Williams said.
Next for Terps
Opponent: North Carolina State
Site: Reynolds Coliseum, Raleigh, N.C.
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Pub Date: 2/07/99