- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

They were supposed to be remnants of a title team, a squad mostly of role players forced into leadership positions. Instead, the Maryland Terrapins are nobody's afterthought.

Maryland enters its seventh Sweet 16 in 10 seasons on Friday against Michigan State in a South Region semifinal in San Antonio. Coach Gary Williams said this is one of the sweeter efforts in his 14 years at Maryland. A team that stumbled into the postseason has instead left two opponents staggered and the rest of the field wary of the defending national champions.

The Turtle is back, and its opponents know fear. After all, guard Drew Nicholas labeled the Terps "dangerous."

"We're going to carry this momentum right into San Antonio," he said. "The previous two years, everybody expected [to reach the Sweet 16]. If we didn't do that, the year would be a disappointment. This year, a lot of people didn't expect us to get that far. We get to throw it in their faces a little bit."

The Terps entered the NCAA tournament with some uncertainty. Maryland didn't play well away from Comcast Center most of the season, were only 5-5 against NCAA tournament teams and won just two big games, against Duke and Wake Forest. The frontcourt wilted in two straight losses, including a first-round ACC tournament exit to North Carolina after beating the Tar Heels by 40 points earlier in the season. Guard Steve Blake was mired in a 7-for-28 shooting slump.

The Terps could have been one and done in the NCAA tournament. They were nearly ousted before Nicholas' miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer that even he thought was short beat UNC Wilmington 77-75 on Friday.

The senior leadership that opposing coaches have long said Maryland's five seniors would provide come March was evident. While the quintet's drive for a second title was sometimes questioned inside and out of the locker room, the 70 games of combined tournament experience among the top seven players have clearly provided needed resiliency.

"There's been a tremendous amount of pressure this year," Williams said. "Any team that lost four starters is going to have trouble making the tournament. Then we were told how bad we were for losing to Virginia and North Carolina. It's hard for young guys to stay resilient, to fight that mental process, and we have. This year is completely different than last year, but equally rewarding."

Said forward Tahj Holden: "We've seen all the pressure situations. I don't think there's a game I haven't been a part of close games, blowouts, guys in foul trouble. I've seen everything there is to be seen, and experience-wise it helps when you have five guys who have done it."

Empowered by the first-round escape, Maryland humiliated third-seeded Xavier 77-64 on Sunday. The much-touted Musketeers were turned into a one-man team and forward David West was a nonfactor aside from one brief run.

Maryland won through versatility and depth. The big men and guards both produced and the bench outscored Xavier's reserves 23-0. Williams knew defending West, a three-time Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, would be key, so he rotated four players who drew a combined 15 fouls to neutralize him.

"We try to go 10 deep and it really paid off," Williams said. "With that foul trouble inside, you had to keep rotating guys. It's not the points they get, but the ability to play at the same level when you sub."

When Xavier cut Maryland's 17-point halftime lead to three with 6:06 remaining, both Nicholas and Blake responded with 3-pointers.

"We expect one of us to make something happen it gets like that," Blake said. "Drew hit a big 3 and then I hit the jumper. Someone always steps up."

But senior center Ryan Randle clearly has been the key to the resurgence. After three straight poor efforts, Randle delivered 16 rebounds and 15 points against UNC Wilmington and 17 points and five rebounds versus Xavier. "Sleepy" is now "Scary", including a scratchy beard meant to make him appear more intimidating.

"I'm not a vocal leader," he said, "but I showed what we had to do and they rode off that."

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