Saturday, March 13, 1999

Wally wallops Washington


Szczberiak makes Huskies pay for carefree defense

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[szczerbiak]
Wally Szczerbiak carried the RedHawks on his back.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        NEW ORLEANS — Wally Szczerbiak inbounded the ball with a smile on his face and a quip on his lip. There were 59 seconds to play in the game of his life, and still no room to breathe. Yet Wally's world was at peace. He regarded the NCAA Tournament with all the reverence and awe of a game of H-O-R-S-E in the driveway.

        He might miss, but he would not crack.

        “When I go out and play ball,” the Miami star said, “I just take the outlook that a basket is a basket and a ball is a ball. All the media and TV doesn't change that. I honestly don't get nervous for too many games.”

        Statistically, it might be said that Szczerbiak rose to the occasion Friday afternoon. He scored a career-high 43 points — every one of them indispensable — in Miami's 59-58 NCAA upset of Washington. But the measure of this Mid-American Conference marvel is how little he is moved by The Moment; how he maintains his posture when others are paralyzed.

        He seems to take pleasure in pressure, and he takes every shot with little doubt about its destination. His range of skills make him a terrific player, but it is his uncanny cool that make him great.

        “He just steps up,” Walt Szczerbiak said of his son from a front-row seat at the Louisiana Superdome. “That's what he does. This was like a high school game for him.”

        No brag, just fact. Wally Szczerbiak beat the Huskies from the perimeter and in the paint, from behind screens and off his own dribble. He undressed Washington's Greg Clark man-to-man, and then exposed the folly of a 2-3 zone. He was as hard to stop as an 18-wheeler on a downhill grade — an irresistible force

        with a bejeweled jump shot. He scored as many points by himself Friday as did Southwest Missouri State en masse, and he had Wisconsin's 32-point output beat with 9:20 left.

        “We didn't keep Szczerbiak from his comfort zones,” Washington guard Donald Watts explained. “When you let a player of that caliber get into his comfort zone, he'll burn you.”

        If the Huskies bothered to scout Miami, they plainly missed the point. The RedHawks are not ordinarily a one-man team, but Szczerbiak is rarely confronted with single coverage. The lesson evidently lost on Washington coach Bob Bender is that when this guy gets the ball, your guy had better have some help.

        “The first couple of possessions, we ran set plays, and I got as open as I've been all year,” Szczerbiak said. “It seemed every time I drove, there weren't two or three guys ready to help. I had been used to getting a lot more double teams in the MAC. It seems like when you play the high-profile teams, they don't guard you with two guys, they don't hedge on screens. ... Most games I can keep track of how many points I have. Today, I had no idea.”

        He took 33 shots altogether — easily the highest total of his career — and only a couple of them were off-balance, obstructed or ill-advised. Szczerbiak had complained of tight rims and overinflated balls at the MAC Tournament in Toledo, but the conditions here could hardly have been more conducive.

        The main difference, though, was physical. Szczerbiak's tender knee has had time to heal, restoring the spring in his step and the lift in his jump shot. Those who suggested his pro prospects were devalued by his play in the MAC Tournament were obliged to reconsider Friday afternoon. Specifically, Chris Russo, a.k.a. the Mad Dog of WFAN radio in New York.

        “I grew up listening to Mike (Francessa) and the Mad Dog,” Szczerbiak said. “When we played against Kent on national TV, it was the first time the Mad Dog had seen me play. He said I was putrid. My dad was listening. That gave me an incentive to prove a lot of people wrong, the people who said I couldn't play in the big games.”

        If he can approach Friday's performance Sunday against Utah, Szczerbiak will solidify his position as an NBA lottery pick. If he can't, it is because Utah coach Rick Majerus knows better than to leave him open.

        “Shouldn't Utah play a box-and-one Sunday?” someone asked Miami coach Charlie Coles.

        “Shhh,” Coles said, pressing his index finger against his lips. “I don't want to give (Rick) Majerus any ideas.”

        Majerus said he was leaning toward a triangle-and-two. Wally Szczerbiak is a guy who bears watching.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.



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