- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

Maryland completes the first half of its ACC schedule tonight in Charlottesville looking to maintain at least a share of the conference lead. Virginia hopes to silence doubters who perceive it as overrated with its No. 8 ranking.

The matchup has different meanings for the third-ranked Terrapins and the Cavaliers. The Terps (16-3, 6-1) have won three straight and eight of nine while aiming toward a Feb. 17 showdown with Duke at Cole Field House. Virginia (14-3, 4-3) is coming off a 94-81 road loss to the Blue Devils as it looks for a big-time victory.

The Cavaliers' most impressive victory was at home over No. 24 Wake Forest. They also beat Georgetown in December but lost to N.C. State in Charlottesville and at Clemson.

Meanwhile, the Terps have rarely missed a beat and have stayed a proven power coming off last season's Final Four appearance. That status only makes their neighbors to the south hopeful of rekindling a once-fierce rivalry.

"Maryland was always at the top of the heap," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. "Now we're starting to get a little better. I think it's starting to develop."

But that's not to say there isn't animosity between the two programs. Said Terps point guard Steve Blake: "Virginia fans are a little whacked in the head" because of their off-color and loud antics just off the court. Maryland heard those spectators in full voice last season in the Cavaliers' 99-78 romp at University Hall, turning the Terps' hangover after blowing a 10-point lead to Duke into a full-fledged stomach churner.

Maryland answered that loss with a 102-67 romp over Virginia in the final game of the regular season at Cole Field House. It was part of the launching that landed Maryland in its first Final Four.

Virginia has a strong Maryland flavor, led by former Good Counsel High School standout Roger Mason. The 6-foot-5 junior guard is the Cavaliers' catalyst with a 17.9 point average and 38 percent 3-point shooting. Mason has been particularly valuable with scheduled starting point guard Majestic Mapp out for a second straight season after knee surgery.

Mason even filled in at point guard, allowing Keith Jenifer, a freshman from Baltimore, time to develop. The most intriguing matchup in the backcourt will be Mason and Juan Dixon (19.3 points), who were teammates on the U.S. team in the World University Games in China last summer.

"Both guys are capable of putting a lot of points on the board in a hurry," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.

The Cavaliers' backcourt could be even thinner without Mapp because athletic swingman Adam Hall (12.4 points) has missed the last five games with an injured right foot and is questionable for tonight.

Virginia will rely on 6-8, 254-pound Travis Watson to neutralize Maryland's size advantage, led by 6-8, 260-pound Lonny Baxter (15.1 points, 8.2 rebounds) and 6-10 Chris Wilcox (11.1 points, 7.7 rebounds). Watson, a junior center, averages 12.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. The Cavaliers also use freshman Jason Clark and Elton Brown on the inside.

"[Watson] doesn't get the attention he deserves, but he certainly is the focal point for Virginia inside," Williams said. "I think being left-handed is really an advantage for him."

That seems to be one of the few advantages for the Cavaliers, other than the University Hall fans who are "whacked in the head." Blake rebounded from a miserable game at Duke to post three strong outings, including scoring 19 points at Wake Forest and dishing out nine assists in Maryland's most recent win, a blowout of Florida State.

The Terps have experience and size, and are coming to Charlottesville with a completely different psyche than the fog in which they arrived last season after the Duke debacle.

"It's a huge game," said Blake, a high school teammate of Watson at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy. "It's on the road. We want to finish the first half of the season on a winning note and build into the second half."

Said Dixon: "We know we are one of the better teams in the country. Hopefully, we can keep playing like that."

Note This is the only the second time the two programs have met when they were both in the top 10. The last time was Jan. 14, 1981, when sophomore Ralph Sampson led the Cavaliers to a 66-64 win in College Park. Dixon has 307 steals and needs three to move onto the NCAA's top 20 career list in a tie with ex-George Washington star Shawnta Rogers, Scott Burrell of Connecticut and Clarence Caesar of LSU.

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