NEW YORK -- The morning after the University of Maryland lost by 15 points to Boston College in the Big East-ACC Challenge this month, a prominent pro scout was talking about a prominent member of the Terrapins basketball team.
"Williams," the scout said, "is out of control."
"You mean Gary?" he was asked.
"No, Walt," the scout said.
It didn't matter that Walt Williams had scored a team-high 30 points. What stood out on the final line of statistics was 9-for-24 shooting from the field, including 2-for-10 from three-point range.
It didn't matter that he had eight rebounds, seven assists and five steals, because they were overshadowed by five turnovers and hardly any defense against a pair of freshman guards, who burned Maryland for 54 points.
All that changed Thursday night in the ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden.
In an 86-81 victory over Rutgers, Walt Williams scored 30 again. But he was 10-for-16 from the field, including 3-for-7 on three-pointers. He had nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals, but his eight turnovers were inconsequential because he caused just as many on defense.
"Everyone knows what kind of offensive player Walt is, but that was probably the best defensive game he's played since I've been here," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose team's third straight victory raised its record to 5-3 and put the Terps into tonight's championship game against 12th-ranked South Carolina (9-1).
It was, without question, the best game Walt Williams played since he scored a career-high 33 in an upset victory over North Carolina last January. But, in retrospect, that game caused as many problems for Williams in terms of expectations as it brought national recognition for the 6-foot-8 point guard.
"When I did play that well, people kind of expected it to happen every night," said Walt Williams, who averaged 12.7 points as a sophomore last season. "I was young, and maybe I thought I could do that, too. But we had players like Jerrod [Mustaf] and Tony [Massenburg] around, and those guys were getting their 20 points. With those guys gone, I have to be able to take over a game."
With the departure of Mustaf and Massenburg to the National Basketball Association, Williams would become the focal point of Maryland's offense. But with the transfer of Teyon McCoy to Texas and the academic ineligibility of small forward Jesse Martin, it also meant that Williams would have to get accustomed to four new starters.
It hasn't been easy. Until Thursday night's game, Williams had put up some decent averages (18.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists), but his assist to turnover ratio (40 to 36) was horrendous for a player reputed to be one of the best point guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference, if not the country.
"Walt's a great player, but when he decided to stay, everyone made him out to be even a greater player," said Gary Williams. "He's playing with four new guys. I think he's done a great job. Sometimes when you're a spectacular player, people think you have to be that way every night."
There were some in College Park who thought all the attention had gone to his head. Included in that publicity was the cover of the team's press guide featuring Williams dressed in a magician's robes, an allusion to his nickname, "The Wizard."
And when Williams showed up sporting a wide, white headband on opening night, there was more concern. "I never talked with him about it, but the good thing is that he took it off himself," Gary Williams said of the headband, which hasn't been seen since the second half of the West Virginia game.
Said Walt Williams: "It wasn't a big deal. I just decided I didn't need it."
What Williams needed was a little help from his friends. Senior guard Matt Roe, who was supposed to take some pressure off Williams with his three-point shot, was struggling. After a quick start, junior transfer Garfield Smith was hampered by a bad ankle and foul trouble. And senior center Cedric Lewis wasn't expected to be much of an offensive threat, anyway.
So it was left to Williams, who was shooting a disappointing 43 percent from the field going into the Holiday Festival, 9-for-39 from three-point range. He was coming off a lackluster 10-point, five-turnover performance Saturday against Lafayette, a game in which he played only three minutes of the second half because of foul problems.
"You always want to go out and play well, but you're not going to do it every night," said Williams. "I haven't been pressing. I take tough shots, and I try to create a lot of open shots for the fellas, and sometimes you're going to make some turnovers. I definitely want to cut down on my turnovers, but I'm not going to change my game."
There are some who still think that Williams, who played most of his freshman year at small forward, would be more valuable up front. Gary Williams has tried to use Walt Williams' inside game a little more, as evidenced by the two backdoor lob dunks he threw down against the Scarlet Knights.
"I really don't want Walt to come out of there too often, so I try to rest him a little by moving him to the 3 [small forward]," said Gary Williams. "You don't have to work as hard there as you do at the point. But Walt's still the best ballhandler we have."
Shortly after Thursday night's game, the same pro scout who had seen Williams play in Richmond was asked what he thought of his performance at the Garden. The scout smiled. "A different player," he said with a wink.
NOTES: In the 7 p.m. consolation game, Rutgers (5-3) will meet Brigham Young (6-6). Maryland will not play again until the ACC opener Wednesday night at Wake Forest.