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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Out Of Boise

Maryland and Georgetown prove that anyone writing off either of them in late January was premature.

March 19, 2001|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The two teams don't play each other much. Maryland and Georgetown have met twice since 1980 and one of those meetings was in the NCAA tournament.

But here they are, the Terrapins and Hoyas--two teams filled with kids who grew up together, two teams whose home courts are 15 miles apart--traveling 3,000 miles to play in Anaheim.

Thanks, NCAA.

And for both Maryland, seeded No. 3 in the West, and Georgetown, seeded No. 10, the tournament has a redemptive feel.

Maryland's season seemed lost on Jan. 27 when the Terrapins blew a 10-point lead over then-No. 1 Duke at home and ended up losing a nationally televised game in overtime.

Georgetown is finding its way out of the shadow of John Thompson, who for nearly two decades ruled the Hoyas with insular strength.

Then Thompson quit and a quiet, dark-haired 17-year Thompson assistant named Craig Esherick, a law school graduate, a silent partner while Thompson ruled the gym, the campus and sometimes the town, got Thompson's job.

Who was this mild-mannered man? Could he possibly be up to the task of continuing Thompson's tradition? Why didn't Georgetown go out and hire a big-name, big-rep, bigtime-experienced head coach?

Because, it turns out, Craig Esherick is exactly the right man for the job.

But during the final week of January, it seemed unlikely that either team, Maryland or Georgetown, would be here in Anaheim and playing in the Sweet 16.

On Jan. 20, Georgetown was 16-0 and 4-0 in the Big East. By Jan. 29 the Hoyas were 16-3 and 4-3. Everyone who had taken notice of the Hoyas and their gaudy record started looking more closely. The won-loss mark, it turned out, had been built by playing too many teams like Maryland Eastern Shore and Morgan State.

"Some people lost some faith in us, but all teams hit a little lull," guard Kevin Braswell said. "We knew we were a good team. We just had some stumbles along the way."

When the Hoyas did get their NCAA bid and their No. 10 seeding, Esherick complained that Georgetown had been underseeded. Play a better schedule, Esherick was told, in effect, by the seeding committee, then bring your complaints.

But Esherick had a plan. This is only his second full season as head coach. He is still molding the Hoyas. The same kids who were so protected under Thompson now laugh and joke in public. With their coach. There is no more "Hoya Paranoia," and this isn't a team filled with only Thompson recruits.

Freshmen like Demetrius Hunter and Victor Samnick and Mike Sweetney are key contributors. They needed to be blended with veterans such as Braswell and 7-foot center Ruben Boumtje Boumtje.

"Maybe nobody picked us to be here," Braswell said, "but we did. This is not a surprise."

Maryland's situation was worse.

It all started to fall apart against Duke when the Terrapins led the visiting Blue Devils by 10 points with 54 seconds to go. The noise level in Cole Fieldhouse was earsplitting. Duke had defeated good Maryland teams at Cole for three consecutive seasons and had won 23 consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference road games, but that was all to be buried. In 54 seconds.

Then Duke's sophomore guard Jason Williams scored eight points in 13 seconds and Nate James sank two free throws to send the game into overtime. Of course the Blue Devils won then. Of course Maryland's season seemed headed for the garbage can or at least the NIT.

"We couldn't get away from that game," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "Everywhere we went we heard about that game. We saw the replays over and over. It was a tough, tough time."

Four nights later Maryland lost at Virginia. Four nights after that the Terrapins defeated dreadful Clemson, but then they lost at Georgia Tech, at North Carolina and, worst of all, to the ACC's worst team, Florida State.

"A real low point," Williams said. "We could have gone either way at that time," Maryland guard Juan Dixon said.

The way the Terrapins went was south, to Winston-Salem and to the season's turning point.

Maryland defeated Wake Forest, 73-57. It was a decisive victory, and the Terrapins played with blossoming confidence. "We haven't had this feeling in the locker room in a long time," Dixon said afterward.

It had been three weeks of despair and one night of joyous rediscovery.

"The kids found themselves again," Williams said.

"On that night," Dixon said, "I knew we'd be OK."

On Feb. 27, a month after the Duke disaster, the Terrapins crunched the Blue Devils, 91-80, at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was, Williams says, a statement about the character of the Terrapins.

Now that character has carried Maryland to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in eight years--against a Georgetown team that won't go quietly.

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