Injury ends UM career for Ekezie; Senior center ruptures Achilles' tendon in practice, won't return; Terps counting on Baxter; Nigerian had lost job after 90 straight starts


RALEIGH, N.C. -- Maryland's hopes for a memorable March were dealt a crushing blow Tuesday evening, when senior center Obinna Ekezie ruptured his right Achilles' tendon, ending his college career.

A 6-foot-10, 262-pounder from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Ekezie was injured doing a drop-step move near the end of practice at Cole Field House.

Ekezie did not accompany the Terps to N.C. State. A magnetic resonance imaging performed at Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park confirmed the severity of the injury, and he will undergo surgery at 3 p.m. today at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Team physician Dr. Leigh Ann Curl will perform the surgery.

"Obinna went to pick up a ball and make a move," coach Gary Williams said, explaining how the injury occurred. "It looked like he slipped on a wet spot on the floor. He said, 'I think I tore my Achilles'. I told him it was probably a sprain. He was right."

Williams said there was no one else in the lane when Ekezie was injured.

"He made a pump fake and tried a move," said point guard Terrell Stokes, a senior tri-captain along with Ekezie and Laron Profit. "He was playing hard in practice, and this is extremely unfortunate. That's why this was a good win for the team, and for him."

Minus Ekezie, Maryland beat North Carolina State, 63-50.

Ekezie collected 1,172 points and 671 rebounds over four solid seasons, as he developed from a clumsy freshman into a force who occasionally could dominate a game. He started 105 games, but was benched in what turned out to be his final college game, last Saturday against Virginia.

Williams cited Ekezie's tentativeness and the contributions of freshman Lonny Baxter in making the change. Ekezie had started the previous 90 games, the second-longest streak in the Atlantic Coast Conference behind Duke's Trajan Langdon.

Baxter started his second straight game at center last night. Sophomore Mike Mardesich, who did not play in the second half against Virginia, figures to see more action, but the Terps will miss the experience of a player who started 11 postseason games.

"We're going to miss him," Stokes said. "He's been our big man for four years, but the good teams find a way to succeed. I talked to him when it happened. He's in pretty good spirits. He said he just wanted to get healthy as quickly as possible."

Ekezie, 23, was mentioned as one of the nation's premier post players in the preseason. He could be inconsistent and run hot and cold on the same night, but he figured in some of Maryland's best wins in recent seasons.

Ekezie outplayed North Carolina's Antawn Jamison in an ACC tournament semifinal loss last season, forcing the national Player of the Year out of the game with a mysterious back injury that cleared up the next day.

One week later, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Ekezie did nothing offensively for 38 minutes, then hit six straight clutch free throws in the bonus situation to beat Illinois and propel the Terps into the Sweet 16 for the third time in five seasons.

On Jan. 13 at North Carolina, Ekezie did not score and had two fouls in a forgettable first half. He then hit six straight shots in the second half and scored 19 points to lead Maryland to an important 89-76 victory.

"He always seems to play well against us," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said earlier this week. "He's a great player, and he certainly concerns us."

Ekezie had little experience in basketball when he showed up at Worcester (Mass.) Academy for a year of prep school in 1994. He was overweight when he came to College Park the following year, but shaped up and became a starter in January of his freshman season.

His teammates joked about his weight and his stylish syntax, but he admonished them with the pronouncement that he spoke "the King's English."

He is among an elite group of students in a program with a joint business and engineering major. Ekezie recently expressed concern about the five-year program, given the fact that some considered him an NBA prospect.

"Obinna should be OK by October," Williams said. "I hope somebody [in the NBA] gives him a chance."

Earlier this season, Williams commented on how injury-free the last few seasons have been for the Terps. His first few Maryland teams were beset by a run of injuries, the most severe being Walt Williams' broken leg in his junior year in 1991.

Ekezie's statistics

A look at the career statistics of Maryland center Obinna Ekezie, who ruptured his right Achilles' tendon on Tuesday.

Year FG FT Reb Blk Pts

'95-96 .472 .550 3.7 0.6 4.5

'96-97 .550 .639 6.6 1.0 10.1

'97-98 .484 .670 6.5 1.2 12.8

'98-99 .488 .693 5.9 1.5 12.7

Totals .500 .654 5.7 1.1 9.9

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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