- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

Students sang "Happy Birthday" to Maryland coach Gary Williams late in Saturday's rout of Virginia at Cole Field House quite a different tune from the boos coming from the stands a few weeks ago.

Williams, who turned 56 yesterday, was too busy enjoying one of the best wins of his career to hear the singing. The 16th-ranked Terrapins pulverized the No. 7 Cavaliers 102-67 to the delight of the packed house on Senior Day.

"I was just happy to get the win," Williams said after the largest win over a ranked team in program history. "That's the best birthday present you can ask for me."

The Terps, who looked near dead a few weeks ago, suddenly look like a Final Four contender, not just beating but devouring any team in their way.

Maryland has won its last five games four over ranked opponents by an average of 19.8 points. The Terps (20-9, 10-6 ACC) had lost five of six games before that stretch, punctuated by a home loss to league doormat Florida State on Feb. 14. Maryland could be back in the Associated Press Top 10 for the first time since the week of Thanksgiving when the new poll is released today.

"I don't understand how we made the change so fast," said shooting guard Juan Dixon, who is leading the resurgence and again playing like an All-American. "We lose to Florida State, and then we go down to Wake Forest and beat them by 16 points. We beat four Top 25 teams in this five-game stretch. I wish I had an answer for it, but I don't. We are a unit now and playing well on both ends of the court. That's the key. We are playing better defense."

Williams took a softer approach with his team after the Florida State loss. Dixon rededicated himself, often shooting alone late into the night. Somewhere between the motivational speeches and soul searching led by seniors Mike Mardesich and LaRon Cephas, it all clicked.

The Terps are the league's hottest team heading into this week's ACC tournament and are a threat to play well into March. Williams did not care to reflect on the bizarre regular season that ended on a particularly high note Saturday. Williams is living in the moment, sensing his team is on the verge of something special.

"That will be a while from now hopefully," Williams said when asked to analyze the wild regular-season ride. "I don't want to step back from anything. This is too good. We have practice [today]. We don't want to stop anything."

On Saturday, Maryland displayed all the reasons it was ranked No. 5 going into the season. Center Lonny Baxter (15 points) was a bull in the middle, and Terence Morris (14 points, 13 rebounds, four blocked shots) showed the versatility that will make him a rich man in the NBA. The bench showed why the Terps can afford to be relentless.

The Terps go a legitimate 10 deep, and that will be a big asset heading into the ACC tournament and next week's NCAAs. Third-seeded Maryland faces sixth-seeded Wake Forest in a first-round game Friday in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Terps swept the Demon Deacons in the regular season. The winner likely will face Duke, which the Terps upset Tuesday in Cameron Indoor Stadium, without injured center Carlos Boozer (broken foot).

Saturday was another impressive step in the resurrection of the Terps. Point guard Drew Nicholas broke out of his personal struggles and delivered 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting and a career-high 10 assists while filling in for foul-plagued Steve Blake. Reserve forward Danny Miller used his dribble-penetration for layups and passes for easy baskets. The 6-foot-8 junior posted season highs with 14 points and six assists. And Morris broke out of a month-long shooting slump by making four of seven shots, including two of three 3-pointers.

"There was no loss in momentum when [Drew] came in for us," Williams said. "He played a lot of minutes [27] right there. Danny Miller, of course, played the same way he did against Duke. Tahj Holden … That's a great sign. That's a bench. That's the difference between a bench and a sixth man. A bench comes from different places rather than the same guy every day."

It all jelled as Maryland avenged a 21-point loss to the Cavaliers four weeks ago with a 35-point thrashing. The defense has been strangling opponents with a mixture of man-to-man and zone. The Terps held Duke to 30 percent shooting Tuesday and limited the Cavaliers to 35 percent.

"Whoever comes into the middle to try and score is going to have to make a tough shot," Byron Mouton said. "We are flying at them, pushing them out of the way and fighting through. I think it is our whole mentality right now. We are mentally tough and will be physical with whoever we play."

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