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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

'Cats Can Do

West Regional: Maryland gives Arizona a fight, but defending champions finally prevail, 87-79.

March 20, 1998|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assuming the pony express carrying Lute Olson's declaration of war didn't get ambushed by Dick Vitale, the ACC now knows it has a great and fabled basketball rivalry with the Pac-10.

This was news to most Atlantic Coast Conference schools till, oh, about Wednesday, but as soon as Olson's harried flag-waving from Anaheim got their attention on the other coast, Maryland was dispatched to do what it could to quell the uprising.

After nearly 30 minutes of basketball Thursday night in the NCAA West Regional semifinal, Maryland, the third-place representative from the ACC, had Arizona on its heels, trailing the defending NCAA champion by a single point at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.

At that point Olson called timeout, reminded the troops of their sacred mission and then watched the three-point shots cascade through the hoop as the Wildcats pulled away for a 87-79 victory, moving them into Saturday's regional final against Utah.

Moral of the story?

"I'm not saying good basketball isn't played in the East--all I'm saying is that we play very good basketball in the West too," Olson said. "It's time people recognize this.

"From what I understand, Washington lost at the buzzer tonight to Connecticut. Washington shouldn't even be in this tournament, most people said. That's pretty good, to lose at the buzzer in the third round when you're not even supposed to be in the tournament.

"It's time people realize the West plays very good basketball."

If they read, they already do; Arizona led the nation in magazine covers heading into this tournament. Respect? Maryland accorded Arizona enough to commit 24 personal fouls, with three Terrapins fouling out.

That kind of heavy-duty hacking kept Maryland (21-11) close deep into the second half, with the Terrapins pulling to within 57-56 on Terrell Stokes' backdoor layup with 10:25 to play.

Then came Olson's timeout, after which the Wildcats promptly went on a 9-0 run to build their lead back to 10 points, 66-56, with 7:40 to play.

Maryland hung in for a few minutes more, trailing, 70-65, with 4:07 left before Arizona's All-American backcourt responded with three successive three-point baskets.

Miles Simon from the left side.

Mike Bibby from the right side.

Simon again from the left baseline.

With 2:17 to go, Arizona led, 79-67, and the Pacific 10 banner would stand to wave a couple more days.

Bibby led all scorers with 26 points--18 in the first half--including five-of-six three-point shooting, with Simon adding 18. All five Arizona starters finished in double figures--forwards Bennett Davison and Michael Dickerson contributing 16 and 12 points, respectively, and center A.J. Bramlett scoring 11.

Maryland, after shooting only 34.2% in the first half, wound up with four scorers in double figures, led by Laron Profit's 19 points and Rodney Elliott's 16. Elliott was one of three Terrapins to foul out, along with center Obinna Ekezie and reserve Mike Mardesich.

In Arizona's postgame interview session, Olson was asked if he was worried when Maryland pulled to within 57-56.

"Why would we worry?" Olson shot back with a grin.

"During the timeout, I just said we had to get tough. This is not a worrying team."

No, that has not been an adjective applied to Arizona this week.

Arrogant, yes.

Cocky, oh, sure.

But, as Maryland Coach Gary Williams had to concede, "They back up what they say."

If, as Olson has loudly contended, Arizona hasn't gotten its proper due back East, Williams does not count himself among the nonbelievers.

"I've always believed that the defending champion is the team with the greatest advantage [in the NCAA tournament]," Williams said. "Arizona got there last year and has the most experience. That is a real advantage."

However, being an ACC man, Williams had to add, "But, there are some good teams that can win it this season."

Maryland guard Sarunas Jasikevicius concurred.

"They are possibly [going to win the title]," he said, "but they're only one of several teams that could win. There are a lot of good teams in this tournament."

The Wildcats have done the math and there are only three more good teams left to beat this tournament.

Bring them on, they say, especially if they hail from the East.

As Bibby said, "We play everybody the same, it doesn't matter whether they are from the East or the West. We play them hard."

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