One month after beginning a rescue of a season that was sliding out of control and pushing them onto the NCAA tournament bubble, the Terps are back in the Sweet 16.
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Final record: No. 1 Maryland (32-4)
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Maryland, which will travel to California today, joins the Sweet 16 for the fifth time during the 12-year coaching tenure of Gary Williams, and the third time in the past four seasons. The Terps (23-10), who were eliminated in the second round of last year's tournament, are trying to become the first Williams team ever to advance beyond the round of 16.
Should the 11th-ranked Terps survive the West Regional, where top-seeded and second-ranked Stanford also looms, they would advance to the Final Four in Minneapolis for the first time in school history.
"I don't know how good we are. I know we battled our way into a third seed, which was tough, considering where we had to come from in mid-February," said Williams, referring to the 1-5 losing streak that nearly doomed Maryland and kept it from its eighth consecutive bid to the NCAAs.
"I'm really proud to get back into the NCAA tournament. We were on the bubble after we lost to Florida State [completing the 1-5 run on Feb. 14]. Now I'm proud to get to the Sweet 16. There's more things ahead of us."
To get through Boise unscathed, Maryland had to survive a major scare from 14th-seeded George Mason, which abused the Terps' frontcourt and controlled the tempo of an 83-80 Maryland victory.
Yesterday, the Terps took aim at a smaller upstart in Georgia State -- led by former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell -- and reasserted its strength down low. The Panthers have no starters over 6 feet 7, and they paid a stiff price in the paint, where the Terps outscored them 50-24.
Center Lonny Baxter and forward Terence Morris, nearly absent by combining for only six points in the George Mason victory, returned with fire two days later. The 6-8 Baxter was pretty much unstoppable, scoring a team-high 19 points, and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds. Morris (14 points, nine rebounds) punctuated his productive day with three dunks and two vicious blocked shots.
"I came out in the first game and I was pretty flat," Morris said. "I came out with a good effort in practice yesterday. I just came out today with an aggressive mind. I would take what I was given. Once inside, I was going to rebound and block shots."
Defense was the biggest star. Maryland, conscious of the multitude of three-point shooting threats from Georgia State (29-5), hounded the Panthers on the wings relentlessly. The Panthers made only 20 of 65 shots overall, and were only 4-for-22 (18.2 percent) from three-point range.
Point guard Steve Blake was a constant thorn in the side of Kevin Morris, who missed 12 of 14 shots and finished with eight points. Byron Mouton and Danny Miller (10 points, seven rebounds) combined to shut down Shernard Long, who scored only four of his game-high 20 points in the second half. Thomas Terrell shot 2-for-11 and scored six points.
"It was only a matter of time before we wore them down," said Terps guard Juan Dixon, who was all over the floor once again by scoring 14 points and adding six assists, five rebounds and four steals. "[Georgia State] only goes five or six [players deep], and we had to keep the pressure on and keep banging them around."
Not that yesterday's victory was a thing of beauty. Maryland seemed on the verge of blowing out the Panthers early, when it took a 27-18 lead in the first half. But the Terps were their own worst enemy, either by missing too many free throws or committing turnovers or taking ill-advised shots. They also got out-rebounded in the first half at the offensive end, 12-5.
In the second half, Maryland put together a decisive 16-2 run, turning a 47-47 tie into a commanding 63-49 lead with 10:11 left, then finished off the Panthers by making 10 of their last 11 foul shots. The Terps used their size to wear out the Panthers. They picked their spots to run in transition. And they pounded the ball inside, while holding Georgia State to 23 points in the second half.
"I don't think it took a rocket scientist to realize we had an advantage inside," said Williams. "If we didn't go inside a lot I would have felt really bad."
"We stayed with them for 25 or 30 minutes, but their talent took over. They just kicked our butt," said Driesell, who last took Maryland to the Elite Eight in 1975. "They weren't rolling over our butt until about the last five minutes. We didn't shoot. We only made four threes and we live by the three. They've got better athletes than we do and they've got a better bench than we do."
Miller, who had six points and six rebounds in the second half, was the most effective among the backups, who seem to produce a different hero in each game.