WICHITA, KAN., MARCH 17 -- Sometime between last Sunday and today, just being in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament stopped being a monumental accomplishment to the Maryland Terrapins. So did winning just one game. And perhaps that is the greatest indication of how far their program has progressed since being slapped with NCAA sanctions in 1990.
Making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988, the Terrapins defeated St. Louis, 74-66, today in a Midwest Region first-round game at Kansas Coliseum. Freshman center Joe Smith scored 29 points on 10-of-15 shooting and grabbed 15 rebounds, and Maryland shot 58.3 percent as a team -- its second-best shooting performance of the season.
When the final buzzer sounded, there were smiles, handshakes and even a few hugs. But there was none of the unrestrained joy that accompanied Sunday evening’s announcement of inclusion in the 64-team tournament field.
Then, sophomore guard Duane Simpkins cried when Maryland’s name came up in the brackets. Today, after he had made a career-best 11 assists and the Terrapins had won a game that many thought they would not even play until next year, Simpkins said: “I’m not as excited as I thought I would be. Maybe that’s because I feel we’ve got a lot more to accomplish here.”
The 10th-seeded Terrapins (17-11) will go for their first NCAA tournament second-round victory since 1985 here Saturday, when they play second-seeded Massachusetts. The Minutemen advanced with a 78-60 victory today over 15th-seeded Southwest Texas State.
In other first-round games tonight, third-seeded Michigan needed overtime to escape 14th-seeded Pepperdine, 78-74. On Saturday the Wolverines will face Texas, which beat Western Kentucky, 91-77. Forward Albert Burditt and guard Roderick Anderson led the Southwest Conference champions with career-bests of 26 points and 25, respectively. The Longhorns forced 27 turnovers and outscored the Hilltoppers 55-37 in the second half.
The Wolverines, who had to go overtime in the second round of last year’s tournament against a ninth-seeded UCLA team, lost a 10-point lead in the final seven minutes of regulation, and the Waves missed a chance to win at the regulation buzzer.
Michigan then nearly lost a six-point lead in the final 1:38 of overtime. But with its advantage down to 74-72 and 14 seconds left, Pepperdine guard Damin Lopez missed a three-point attempt that would have put the Waves ahead.
Saturday’s Maryland-Massachusetts game will be the teams’ second meeting of the season. The Minutemen (28-6) won the first, 94-80, in the Hall of Fame Classic final Dec. 29 in Springfield, Mass.
“Maryland is a much different team now,” said U-Mass. forward Lou Roe, whose 16 second-half points today helped the Minutemen break open a game in which they led by just 56-47 with eight minutes to play. “ ... they seem to have their chemistry down.”
The Terrapins did everything they needed to do today. Coming off their second-worst shooting game of the season -- a 32.8 percent performance in a 69-63 loss to Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals -- they grabbed a 30-15 lead during the first 15 1/2 minutes despite 10 turnovers.
The 6-foot-9 1/2 Smith made all six of his shots during that stretch, helping Maryland fully exploit its height advantage over St. Louis. The Billikens’ only player taller than 6-6 was 6-8 Evan Pederson, and he was playing on an injured ankle. That left Smith to 6-3 Donnie Dobbs and 6-6 David Robinson. They had no chance. Smith posted up for a dunk on Maryland’s first possession, and just went from there.
“It was different,” said Smith, who spent the ACC season contending with centers such as North Carolina’s 7-0 Eric Montross, Duke’s 6-11 Cherokee Parks and Clemson’s 6-10 Sharone Wright. “I was able to face the basket without worrying about someone blocking my shot. I took my time, made my first few shots and got some confidence.”
“He played out of his mind,” Dobbs said. “I’ve seen him on TV, and this was his best game in a while.”
But the Billikens (23-6) had faced similar problems all season, and they had earned their first NCAA tournament bid since 1957 with tidy ballhandling and excellent three-point shooting from guards Erwin Claggett, H Waldman and Scott Highmark.
Today, however, Maryland bothered the Billikens in the backcourt with a press, then tenaciously defended on the perimeter. St. Louis committed 16 turnovers, and while Claggett made 4-of-7 three-point shots and scored 16 points, a flu-weakened Waldman shot 1-for-6 from three-point range and Highmark went 1-for-5.
“I think St. Louis executes their offense as well as anyone we’ve played all year,” Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. “For our guys to handle it the way they did for most of the first half, that was the thing that impressed me most.”
Late in the first half, though, the Billikens began taking advantage of Maryland’s turnovers, which totaled 15 by halftime. They closed the half with a 15-5 run that moved them within 35-30.
“At halftime, we were saying we should be beating these guys by a little bit more than we are,” Simpkins said. “But we came back to reality and said, ‘Hey, we’re only up by five.’ “
They also took care of that during the first five minutes of the second half. Sophomore forward Exree Hipp scored seven points and made an assist, and the Terrapins reestablished an 11-point lead.
“That set a little bit of a mood for them,” St. Louis Coach Charlie Spoonhour said.
And the Terrapins’ advantage grew to 54-41 with a little less than 12 1/2 minutes to play.
The Billikens had another rally left in them, however. After a dunk by Smith made it 62-51 with about eight minutes to play, St. Louis outscored Maryland 10-2 without making a three-point goal. That made it 64-61 with four minutes left.
St. Louis had chances to get even closer when Maryland freshman forward Keith Booth missed one-and-ones with the score 68-64 and 1:30 left, and with the score 70-66 and 54.6 seconds left. But the Terrapins held.
After the Booth’s first miss, Claggett missed a jumper. After the second, Rhodes stole the ball from Claggett near midcourt. Rhodes drove in for a breakaway layup and missed, but Smith alertly trailed the play. He grabbed the rebound, was fouled and made both free throws for 72-66 with 36 seconds left.
“Maybe three of five freshmen make that play” instead of simply watching the fast break unfold, Williams said. “But that’s JoeSmith.”
St. Louis failed to score on the ensuing possession, Maryland’s Hipp made two free throws with 19.1 seconds left and the Terrapins had advanced.
Michigan joined them tonight, but not without a considerable scare from Pepperdine. Trailing 61-51 with seven minutes left in regulation, the Waves made a 15-3 run that began with nine consecutive points and ended with them leading, 66-64, with 1:35 to play.
But the Wolverines tied the score on a tip-in by Makhtar Ndiaye with 1:02 left and at 68 on a Juwan Howard shot with 19.5 seconds left. Pepperdine went without a timeout, and Lopez struggled to get off a shot, which was blocked.
The Wolverines scored all of their overtime points on 10-of-10 free throw shooting, but saw Pepperdine overcome a 74-68 lead and have possession with the score 74-72 and 24 seconds left. Lopez missed a long three-point try, however, and Michigan’s Jimmy King and Jalen Rose each made two free throws to seal it.