Originally created 03/18/03

Terps hope experience pays off in NCAA tournament



COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- No team in the 65-team field has more NCAA tournament experience. No other school can claim to be the defending national champions.

Maryland hopes its familiarity and success playing under pressure will prove beneficial in its bid to make a third straight trip to the Final Four.

"Our experience should come into play, especially in tough, close games," senior forward Tahj Holden said.

There are plenty of teams in the field with better records than the Terrapins (19-9) - including UNC-Wilmington (24-6), Maryland's first-round opponent Friday.

But no other school has three players with 13 games of tournament experience. Seniors Holden, Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas are 11-2 over the past three seasons, including 6-0 last year.

"Tahj, Steve and I played major minutes last year and the year before that," said Nicholas, who played behind Juan Dixon before this season. "As one of the most experienced teams in the field, we're definitely ready."

All season long, the Terrapins have thrived under the pressure of being the defending national champions. It's a label they've worn with pride and handled well.

Now comes the final push.

"We're the only defending champion in this tournament and we're proud of that," coach Gary Willams said. "It's something we've lived with all year. Now we're going to use it to give us the pride and toughness necessary to do well in the NCAA tournament."

It's the 10th straight tournament appearance for the Terrapins, all of them under Williams. It wasn't until two years ago that he got Maryland past the round of 16, in part because his players weren't fully prepared for the pressure.

"I'd rather be experienced than not experienced. I remember the first time we went, you're just so excited to be there you forget you are there to win games," Williams said. "We do have veterans on the team who have won a lot of NCAA tournament games, and hopefully that experience will really help us in terms of being solid when we walk on the court."

That doesn't mean the Terrapins won't be nervous. The key is overcoming that emotion to play sound basketball.

"The butterflies are going to be there," Blake said. "It's my last one, so I want to play well. The last one is special, maybe even more special than the first. It's a great time to be playing college basketball."

And the right time to remind everyone who won it all last year.

"We're going in defending our title. We're the only team back as the champion, and we will try to use it to our advantage," Blake said.

All the experience in the world can't help a team that doesn't hit from the outside or has trouble rebounding. That was Maryland's problem in its last two games - losses to Virginia and North Carolina.

Williams isn't worried about the Terrapins' on the offensive end. As valuable as Dixon was as a sharpshooter last year, Maryland won it all with defense.

"If you expect to do well in the NCAA tournament, you have to be a good defensive team," Williams said. "Last year we weren't always smooth offensively in March, but our defense never changed. It was always tough to score on us. We have to have that mind-set going in, and we will."