COLLEGE PARK -- The atmosphere last night at Cole Field House was more ECC than ACC, and so was the execution. It was biodegradable basketball: lots of breakdowns. Hopefully, it won't take long for the tapes to disintegrate.
Maryland's 83-69 victory over Rider College was only a trifle more important than the fact that the Terrapins came out of the game unscathed. About the most anxious moments came when Walt Williams went hard to the floor three times in the second half.
Williams shook off those spills to lead Maryland (7-1) with 25 points -- his sixth straight game with 20 or more. The Terps could never quite shake the Broncs, or their own malaise. Turnovers and missed free throws were not exactly at a premium.
"We've got some things we've got to work on," said junior guard Kevin McLinton, who finished with 16 points. "We're not happy with the way we're playing right now, and Coach [Gary Williams] isn't happy either. We have some soul-searching to do."
After leading by 16 points at halftime, and by as many as 21 points, 54-33, early in the second half, Maryland went dry from the field for the second straight game and watched Rider (4-4) cut its deficit to 62-53 with nine minutes left. The Broncs, led by Darrick Suber's 20 points, got no closer.
The Terps, who went more than eight minutes without a basket in Saturday's seven-point win over Towson State, went nearly six minutes without a basket and another four minutes immediately thereafter. But Rider couldn't take advantage.
"I think this part of our schedule has been difficult," Maryland coach Gary Williams said of his team's post-exam, two-game swing through the East Coast Conference. "Both Towson State and Rider came in with the right attitude. We're one of those teams that can play anybody on our schedule, but anybody on our schedule can play us."
While the victory gave the Terps their best start since 1984-85, when they won 10 of their first 11 games, it raised some concerns. Unless Maryland's play vastly improves from this two-game swing through the East Coast Conference, the Terps could be headed for a rocky stretch.
Starting Saturday night against Rutgers in the opening round of the Fiesta Bowl Classic, Maryland will be in for a tough road. The Terps play five of their next six games away from home, and their lone appearance here for nearly a month will be when they meet top-ranked Duke, the defending national champions.
"Our annual breather with Duke," joked Gary Williams.
It was one of the only jokes Williams would crack last night. Though the Terps shot reasonably well -- scoring lapses aside, Maryland was 24 of 50 from the field -- and held the Broncs to 27 of 63. But they were outrebounded, outhustled and, in some cases, outmuscled.
The dressing room looked as if the Terps had played another Jersey team -- the NFL Giants. McLinton had his right shoulder wrapped in ice, and he leaned his sore neck on a bag of cubes. Walt Williams spent an extra 10 minutes lying down on a table in the training room.
"It was the most physical game we've played all year," said junior center Evers Burns, who finished with 15 points, only three rebounds and a bloody lip.
Gary Williams attributed Maryland's performance to the competition, crediting Rider for its moxie. But it also had something to do with the smallest crowd (3,875) this season, and one of the smallest since his return to Maryland two years ago.
The atmosphere certainly will change, in a hurry. Should the Terps beat Rutgers for the second year in a row -- Maryland won in last year's ECAC Holiday Festival opener -- they will meet sixth-ranked Arizona on its homecourt. The Wildcats have won 66 straight at McKale Center.
And the next time, Maryland plays at home, there will be a sellout. And Duke.
"I think we can execute better offensively and defensively," said Gary Williams. "Just getting excited again will do that."