Maryland connection pays for Thornton; Packers' Freeman offers sage words to old buddy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Bootsy Thornton and Green Bay Packers star Antonio "Buttons" Freeman.

Sounds like some kind of circus act.

But it's really two longtime friends from the Latrobe projects in Baltimore who teamed up last night for St. John's to overwhelm Steve Francis and Maryland in the NCAA South Regionals semifinals -- another crushing Sweet 16 defeat for the Terrapins.

Thornton is the star shooting guard for the Red Storm, and last night he took advantage of some precise, pre-game advice from Freeman to outplay Francis in the Red Storm's 76-62 win.

Freeman proudly wore a No. 14 Thornton jersey into Thompson-Boling Arena and sat with the St. John's fans, cheering loudly for Thornton.

"I always stick with my friends out of the Baltimore projects, and tonight I was really proud of Bootsy. I've known him since he was 8 years old," said Freeman.

"I realized a long time ago he could play and I knew he was set up to guard Francis a lot out of the St. John's matchup zone. I just told him to settle down and let the game come to him and try not to do too much. I also emphasized defense."

Thornton went out and followed Freeman's words to the letter in scoring 17 points, grabbing six rebounds and contributing one steal.

"Buttons was great," said Thornton. "He told me to remain calm and Steve might get a little frustrated. That's exactly what happened."

The low-key Thornton, 21, wanted to make sure that everyone understood that he wasn't grabbing ahold of Freeman, 26, and riding his coattails because he's an NFL star.

"I was friends with Buttons long before he went to the NFL," Thornton said of Freeman, who was a football standout at Poly. "He and I would still be friends even if we weren't in the limelight. Actually, it is Buttons who is a star, not me.

"No one ever thought I was that great and I guess they might not even give me a lot of credit now. They might say Steve had an off-night."

Some of what Thornton was saying seemed to be true as Francis was swarmed by the media in the Maryland locker room while Thornton was surrounded by only a few Baltimore reporters in the St. John's locker room.

In all fairness to Thornton, the New York press hadn't arrived yet in the St. John's area.

"It was a dream to play against Maryland and now I've done it and won," said Thornton. "Maybe my time is starting to come."

Thornton is a 6-foot-4 product of Dunbar who wasn't recruited by Maryland because he was a Proposition 48 player.

And Francis?

"I take my hat off to Bootsy and Erick Barkley," said Francis, who had 13 points. "They helped control the tempo of the game and defensively took us out of a lot of things we like to do. It was their night. Bootsy and I had some friendly talk and that was it. He told me he wanted it to be a good game."

Francis said Maryland helped out St. John's by taking the first jump shot available each time against the Red Storm zone, but, "I don't want that to diminish anything Bootsy did tonight. He was on his game and we weren't."

16 and out

Last night's loss to St. John's gave Maryland an 0-7 record in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament since 1975, when the Terps made it to the round of eight:

Yr. Sweet 16 opponent Result

'80 Georgetown L, 74-68

'84 Illinois L, 72-70

'85 Villanova L, 46-43

'94 Michigan L, 78-71

'95 Connecticut L, 99-89

'98 Arizona L, 87-79

'99 St. John's L, 76-62

Pub Date: 3/19/99

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