- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Final Four bound or one and done?
The Maryland Terrapins could go either way in the NCAA tournament.
The sixth-seeded Terps (19-9) begin defense of their national title tonight against No.11 UNC Wilmington (24-6). Maryland has struggled in two straight losses that showed the frontcourt's vulnerability and erased the team's momentum.
The Terps seemingly peaked in February, when they beat ACC leader Wake Forest and embarrassed North Carolina and Clemson. They've struggled since to rebound consistently and regain the offensive flow that made them the nation's 10th-best scoring offense.
But Maryland quickly regrouped from earlier losses, winning five straight after a 4-3 start that nearly left the Terps out of the Top 25. Then after an ugly road loss at Wake Forest, Maryland beat Duke to start a five-game winning streak. The Terps even followed two straight ACC losses by winning four of five.
"It's just one of the characteristics of this team," forward Tahj Holden said yesterday. "We came back from double-digit deficits to win games. We never give up, and that helps in tough stretches."
The Terps have shown resiliency, but can they show enough desire to reach a third straight Final Four? Senior guard Drew Nicholas openly questioned his teammates' intensity following an opening-round ACC tournament upset by North Carolina on March 14 after Maryland had beaten the Tar Heels by 40 points three weeks earlier.
The five seniors won't point fingers, but center Ryan Randle said Sunday that he had been distracted by an undisclosed personal problem. Randle had only one point and two rebounds against North Carolina, and a similarly dismal performance tonight could jeopardize Maryland's chances.
Coach Gary Williams won't make any changes in the starting lineup, but another slow start by Randle would mean Jamar Smith plays extensively.
Holden and Randle are the keys against UNC Wilmington. Maryland has a significant frontcourt height advantage, with five players bigger than 6-foot-8 UNC Wilmington forward Craig Callahan, who's more of a 3-pointer shooter anyway.
If the Terps can re-energize underneath, they can run their transition offense that could overwhelm the Seahawks. However, if UNC Wilmington controls the boards, a halfcourt game gives the Seahawks a chance.
Still, Maryland also has a backcourt advantage, especially defensively where it can rotate four players on UNC Wilmington guard Brett Blizzard (21.3 points). The two-time Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year is a standout 3-point shooter and has forged excellent chemistry with fellow senior Callahan on interior passes.
Maryland was undermined by hot outside shooting in losses to Virginia and North Carolina, so the Terps can't let Blizzard bury them. Guards Steve Blake and Nicholas are underrated defensive players, and along with standout single coverage by freshmen guards John Gilchrist and Chris McCray, Maryland probably will pester Blizzard the entire game to wear him down.
"We'll just try to contain him," Nicholas said. "A couple of guys will get him and try to limit his touches."
UNC Wilmington guard Tim Burnette has been suspended one game for violating team rules. Burnette (11.0) was essential to the Seahawks' fastbreak, and his absence will put even more pressure on Blizzard to carry the team.
Certainly, Maryland would like its backcourt to provide a quick lead through Nicholas (17.7 points) and Blake (11.9), but the latter has scored only 20 points in the past three games on 7-for-28 shooting from the floor. Blake conceded that he doesn't always look for his shot, though he hit clutch late baskets in two games.
However, the All-ACC first-teamer has compensated with 10 assists in each of the past two games and at least seven in seven straight games. Blake will look to Nicholas, whose 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left beat N.C. State 68-65 on March 2 for the Terps' last victory.
Both teams will be fresh. Maryland will play only its fourth game in 24 days, while UNC Wilmington has been idle for 11 days since taking the CAA tournament title. Williams sees the layoff as advantageous.
"At this time of year, you have played a lot of basketball since October 12," he said. "You really have to make sure you have your legs going in because you want to play two games, obviously, each weekend."

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