- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

MINNEAPOLIS It starts with the coach a great quote, a self-deprecating wisecracker who came back to his tiny alma mater after an All-Star career in the NBA. He hangs out at his school's local bar, commutes 107 miles each way to work and looks like Ted Leonsis after swallowing a grizzly bear.

It extends to the star player, a gawky forward who wears a headband and knee socks on the court and glasses off it. And it encompasses the program's friendly, low-profile image, in which its nickname generally is misused ("Gaels," not "Gales") and its foul-mouthed 88-year-old trainer gets more national ink than the players.

"It" is the potential Cinderella story brewing with Iona's basketball team. Tonight the 14th-seeded Gaels (20-10), champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, take their shot at glory by playing third-seeded, 17th-ranked Maryland (24-9) in a first-round NCAA tournament game at the Metrodome.

"We're playing a very good basketball team, but if you don't believe in yourself, you're not going to get it done," said coach Jeff Ruland, the goateed, 6-foor-11, 290-pound former Washington Bullets center. "If my kids believe, I believe. Miracles happen every day."

Therein lies the challenge for Maryland, a team of taller, more talented and more experienced players. If the Terps play with the focus that earned them second place in the ACC and an appearance in the ACC tournament's title game, there should be no problems.

But every year in this darn tournament … It happens. And every year, people across the nation become fascinated with It.

"Every year a lot of people pull for something like a Valparaiso to happen," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "That makes for good stories, that makes for everything if you're a [No.] 14 or 15 seed. If you're not, that makes for nightmares all summer long."

Williams has had those nightmares, most recently in 1996 and 1997. In '96 No. 7 seed Maryland was dumped in the first round by Steve Nash and 10th-seeded Santa Clara. And in '97, Maryland was a No. 5 seed with the ill luck to draw College of Charleston and its charismatic coach-for-life John Kresse in the first round.

"Iona's certainly a good enough team that it can happen," Williams said. "We realize that, so you just go play. In other words, that fear can't determine how you play."

Fear certainly didn't determine how Iona practiced and interviewed yesterday. Not to say Maryland's players were uptight, but the Gaels were so laid-back you thought their chairs would tip. They were as loose as an older sibling's clothing and as engaging as a happy-hour Guiness.

The attitude undoubtedly stemmed from experience. Iona last reached the tournament in 1998, when Ruland was an assistant to Tim Welsh and five of today's top eight players were contributing in one fashion or another. The Gaels lost to Syracuse on a last-second 3-pointer, one of those loose-ball miracles fired after the team on defense thinks the game is over.

Yesterday you could find Tariq Kirksay, the aforementioned gawky forward, wrestling with a team manager, hamming it up for Minneapolis locals, videotaping parts of practice and joking about his own lack of athleticism. And his shorts were turned backward.

This team has nothing to lose.

"Yeah, we think we can beat them," senior guard Jason Young said. "There wouldn't be any reason to be here if we didn't. We're similar teams, and we played Big East-caliber teams this year… . We're not scared; we came to win. We're not happy to be here; we were happy to be here two years ago."

Maryland, meanwhile, did a bit of laughing and joking of its own, despite the lingering effects of an ankle sprain to sophomore swingman Danny Miller. Miller did not practice again yesterday, and his status will be determined before tonight's game.

Actually, Miller was the only Terp to know the definition of Gael an Irish or Scottish person. Other Terps missed the mark by varying degrees (three said "bird," one guessed "wave" and another predictably offered "gust of wind.") Lonny Baxter simply airballed.

"A deer?"

Uh, no. But Baxter and his teammates appeared to know enough about Iona's style (hard-working, good in transition) to avoid It. Of course, that hasn't stopped the Gaels from dreaming about what could happen on St. Patrick's Eve.

"You don't realize what you're doing, but you're watching TV, the buzzer-beaters on ESPN, and you just wonder what it would be like," Kirksay said. "It's just stuff that everybody dreams of. Now our time has come. We just hope for the best."

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