Tough Terps a sweet success

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - This time, the Maryland Terrapins required no last-second miracle, no buzzer-beating shot to continue their survival in the single-elimination pressure cooker known as the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

In yesterday's South Regional second round at the Gaylord Entertainment Center, sixth-seeded Maryland flexed its muscle with maturity and self-assurance before 17,484 witnesses. The Xavier Musketeers, with their gaudy record, All-America power forward and No. 3 seed, ultimately had no answer.

The 17th-ranked Terps would be the first to admit they have been a maddeningly inconsistent squad at times this year. Maryland also was not the least bit surprised at the way it dismantled Xavier, 77-64.

Less than two days after a game-ending, three-point shot by senior guard Drew Nicholas saved the Terps from first-round elimination against 11th seed UNC-Wilmington, the Terps are sticking out their chests as defending NCAA champions as they fly into their fifth Sweet 16 in the past six years.

Maryland (21-9) will play seventh-seeded Michigan State in the regional semifinals on Friday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio. And to think the Terps recently were trying to shake off a discouraging, two-game losing streak that marred the end of their Atlantic Coast Conference season, and stood five seconds away from a first-round exit as defending champs on Friday night.

"As bad as those two losses were, look at these two wins," Nicholas said in an exuberant Maryland locker room. "The momentum is back to us. We're riding high again, and we're anxious to play again on Friday night."

The Terps could not have tuned up for their Texas trip more impressively. Yesterday's encounter with 12th-ranked Xavier (26-6), led by senior power forward David West, boiled down to senior leadership, winning pedigree and a horde of Maryland players overwhelming a Musketeers roster short on bodies and athleticism.

The contest was nearly over shortly after it began. The Terps staged an absolute clinic at both ends of the floor in the first half before taking a 45-28 lead at the break. Maryland, which sliced open Xavier's interior defense by scoring 14 baskets on layups and dunks in the opening half, held off a determined second-half rally - the Musketeers cut the Terps' lead to 60-57 - before pulling away with ease in the final six minutes.

Everybody grabbed a shovel to help bury the Musketeers, starting with Nicholas and point guard Steve Blake, who shared control of the contest.

Nicholas, who shared the team high in scoring with senior center Ryan Randle (17 points), had a team-high eight rebounds and five assists. Blake, stuck in foul trouble on Friday, ran the offense with precision in 37 smooth minutes yesterday. He finished with nine points, nine assists, seven rebounds and two steals. The Terps won the rebounding battle, 39-28.

Maryland's execution extended to a solid defensive effort by freshman Nik Caner-Medley and senior guard Calvin McCall on Xavier star forward Romain Sato (17 points on 4-for-14 shooting). The Terps' crowning achievement was its post rotation that offset a hard-earned, 22-point effort by West. He missed 11 of 17 shots and got 10 points at the free-throw line.

Senior forward Tahj Holden led the parade of obstacles Maryland threw at West, teaming up with reserves Jamar Smith (12 points on 6-for-6 shooting) and Travis Garrison (five points, five rebounds, two blocks) and well-timed double-teams by guards like Nicholas. Although Holden scored only five points on 1-for-8 shooting, he was a brick wall in West's path.

West, one of three starters who played at least 39 minutes, could not lift Xavier by himself. The Terps conversely enjoyed success in numbers. Using a 10-man rotation, their bench outscored Xavier's by a 23-0 count.

"That was our key. We knew they were going to play a lot of starters for 40 minutes. We just had to keep a body on West, especially my body at 265 pounds, and we were going to wear him down," Holden said. "David West is a great player, but he's not Superman. I don't think any college player is."

"We dug ourselves a grave early," said West, who had eight points in the first half. "For some reason we let [Maryland] get out, get going, and we were unable to recover. We fought back in the second half but couldn't get it done. We just ran out of gas."

Maryland was full of fuel from the outset. Its 45 first-half points were the most allowed by Xavier in an opening half this season. The Terps were determined to run early and often and test the Musketeers' depth, and when Xavier started by missing 20 of its first 28 shots, Maryland turned its fast break loose.

The Terps were equally deadly out of their half-court set. Or was Xavier that bad at switching and fighting through screens on defense? Once the Terps scored 11 unanswered points, highlighted by two slams by Smith, to take a 21-9 lead with 10:43 left in the half, the tone was set.

"Everything was clicking. Offensively, defensively, everyone was doing their part. It was beautiful to watch," Blake said.

"Our execution was really good," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who was unusually calm on the sideline throughout the Terps' first-half exhibition. "Steve is an incredible guard at the way he finds guys who are open. Drew just knows how to play and get open. The big guys were willing to sacrifice and screen, and our big men can run."

Nicholas and Blake, who have been the heart of the Terps this year, stepped up when Maryland needed them. After Xavier, led by West, had put together a 22-10 run - West scored 13 points during it - to cut Maryland's lead to 60-57 with 6:06 left, the senior backcourt denied the Musketeers.

First, Nicholas buried a three-pointer from the top of the key. Then, Blake made an 18-footer from the left wing. Then, following a slam by Smith, Nicholas made an 18-footer, followed by Blake's fast-break feed to Smith for another jam. Maryland led, 71-61, with 3:17 left. Ballgame.

"Drew and Steve just said we're not going to lose," Williams said. "Having seniors like that is such a luxury."

Next for Terps

Matchup:No. 6 seed Maryland (21-9) vs. No. 7 seed Michigan State (21-12) in NCAA South Regional semifinals

Site:Alamodome, San Antonio

When:Friday, 9:57 p.m.

TV/Radio:Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)

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