Holden gives Terps muscle

Back from injury, forward lends team physical presence

`We're meaner with Tahj'

Sophomore helped spark win over Wake

January 21, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

RALEIGH, N.C. - Tahj Holden does not exactly come off as an enforcer.

Sure, the Maryland Terrapins' sophomore reserve forward looks the part. Holden impressively fills out a 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame. How many people would be foolish enough to mess with this guy?

But Holden, 20, is no brooding, angry young man. And he is anything but intimidating while mixing it up playfully with a group of reporters.

A mischievous smirk is his signature expression, as Holden holds court on topics ranging from his future career in broadcasting to his comeback from a left foot injury to the fiery temperament of his head coach to his role on the nation's 12th-ranked team.

Holden is just as soft-spoken as he was as a star at Red Bank High School in New Jersey. His outside shot has the same deft touch it had a year ago. He still passes the ball as smartly as the average guard.

Yet Holden, back from a six-week layoff after breaking a bone in his left foot, is putting another stamp on the Terps. He is the defender with a mean streak, the player who will not be pushed without pushing back, the one who will gladly hit the floor and take opponents with him. Holden is the bruiser with a jump shot.

"It's kind of ironic, isn't it? Coming out of high school, people said I was too soft," Holden said. "Now, everybody thinks I'm the heart and soul of the banging force that we have. It doesn't bother me at all. Every team needs one."

The Terps were reminded of how much they need Holden after he came off the bench and helped Maryland establish some inside toughness against Wake Forest during Wednesday's crucial 81-71 victory. That kept the Terps (13-4, 4-1) a half-game out of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Holden began to embrace the enforcer role during the BB&T Classic in early December, when the Terps survived a tournament championship victory over George Washington in a game that resembled a street fight at times. The Colonials stopped wading freely into the lane after Holden knocked a few of them off course.

Four days later, he took a bad step in practice, got the bad news a day later, then began nearly six weeks of rehabilitation.

During 12 minutes of action against Wake, Holden's rustiness and lack of conditioning showed. He missed all four shots from the field and four of seven at the free-throw line. But that didn't stop him from neutralizing the likes of Darius Songaila with stout defense and a thrown elbow or two.

With Holden in the mix, it seems doubtful that Maryland will get pushed around inside the way teams like Illinois shoved the Terps during their 1-3 start.

"Tahj gave us a great look inside [against Wake]. He brings a different look to this team," said junior guard Juan Dixon.

"We're meaner with Tahj," added Maryland coach Gary Williams. "He allows [center] Lonny [Baxter] to be more aggressive, because he knows there's another big guy coming in. You saw it against Wake Forest. Tahj gives you more minutes to get more big guys on the floor."

Watch Holden as he patrols the lane on defense. Watch what happens when an opponent ventures carelessly into that area.

"It's my space. I live here," Holden said. "If you trespass, I've got to get you out of my house, keep you out of the lane. Stay out."

Holden will need to do more of the same today against a physical North Carolina State (9-6, 1-3) team that features scrappy interior players like forward Kenny Inge and center Damon Thornton, who recently returned from a disciplinary suspension.

After sharpening his conditioning, Holden expects to show the all-around game that got him increased playing time during his freshman season. Holden averaged 12.3 minutes, 3.3 points and 2.0 rebounds, and he shot 47.4 percent from three-point range last season.

"He wasn't soft last year. You're not seeing Tahj at 100 percent right now," Williams said. "When he's in shape, he's a very good shooter. He's always been a very good passer. Right now, he's giving us defense and rebounding, and he did a great job against Wake. Hopefully, he can do the same thing on Sunday."

NOTES: After his 30-point effort against Wake Forest, Dixon is tied for third in the ACC in scoring with a 19.4-point average. He is averaging 24.2 points in five ACC games. Dixon also leads the conference in steals (3.0 a game) and free-throw shooting percentage (.895). He has made 31 consecutive free throws, and 51 of his past 52. ... Forward Terence Morris and center Baxter have stepped up their rebounding games. Against the ACC, Morris is averaging 10.6 rebounds, Baxter 9.6. ... Morris has blocked 14 shots in ACC play.

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