COLLEGE PARK - From the opening tip of their methodical, tough-to-watch, 77-53 victory over Delaware State yesterday, one could sense the Maryland Terrapins were thinking three days ahead, when a huge threat will invade their home court.
For two hours before an announced crowd of 13,146 that was missing a large contingent of Maryland students enjoying a holiday weekend, the No. 6 Terps battled themselves as much as they batted away the overmatched and pesky Hornets.
The Terps (3-1) rebounded poorly in the first half, then manhandled Delaware State (2-1) on the glass after halftime. They took care of the ball early, then threw it away down the stretch. They shot poorly at the free-throw line from wire-to-wire. And for much of the contest, they were frustrated by a slowdown approach by Delaware State, which stood around and milked the shot clock.
And when the drudgery was done, after senior center Lonny Baxter (18 points, 12 rebounds) had recorded his first double double of the season and the 24th of his career, and after sophomore forward Chris Wilcox had fired up the crowd by coming off the bench to record career highs with 16 points and 10 rebounds, the Terps essentially rolled their eyes and started talking about the real game.
That would be Tuesday night's showdown against visiting, No. 2 Illinois, which is the opening game of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. It marks the fourth straight year in which the two schools have met. Last year, Illinois handed the Terps their first loss of the season at the Maui Invitational. That sent Maryland into a season-opening, 1-3 tailspin.
Suffice it to say that Maryland's 79-game home-court winning streak against nonconference opponents, the longest in the nation, is in jeopardy. In 13 seasons under Gary Williams, Maryland has never faced a higher-ranked nonconference team at Cole Field House.
In a terse post-game news conference, Williams said he got what he thought might happen - an uneven, unemotional effort from a superior squad with bigger things on its mind. Williams also sounded as bothered by Delaware State's deliberate style as his players were.
"This is a tough time for us to play, with the students not here and Illinois coming in Tuesday night. We were very aware of that," said Williams, whose Terps used an 11-4 run at the end of the first half to take a 37-21 halftime lead and stretched that margin to as much as 65-36 with 9:28 to play, before getting lackadaisical again.
"It's difficult to stay motivated when you're up by 16 at halftime and not playing particularly well," Williams said. "We're not used to playing that style of play, where you have to chase the ball [far from the basket] on every possession. It's something we don't spend a lot of time on, because nobody does that. I guess [Delaware State] figured it was their best possible chance to win the game."
The Hornets, who were paced by forward Andre Matthews (18 points, 10 rebounds), had no realistic shot to win, but they were not short on effort. They even pulled to within 23-17 with 7:55 left in the first half. But Maryland did not do itself any favors. It missed 15 of 31 foul shots and got outworked on the offensive boards in the first half.
The Terps responded by destroying Delaware State in the second half inside, grabbing 31 rebounds to the Hornets' seven. But Maryland committed many of its nine second-half turnovers after taking that 29-point lead midway through the second half.
Wilcox, who is coming off the bench for now, was the premier player on the floor in the second half, when he scored 12 points, added seven rebounds and was unstoppable down low against the smaller, less athletic Hornets. He scored eight points during the 14-6 run that gave Maryland its 65-36 cushion, highlighted by two nasty dunks.
"It feels good, because I have a chance to go out there and play hard and show people what I can do," Wilcox said. "I felt like I owed it to myself. I haven't been getting the rebounds I should be getting. I was trying to get ready for Illinois."
"Even I get out of the way when [Wilcox] is coming down the lane, and those [Delaware State] guys were only 6-4, 6-5," said 6-10 Tahj Holden. "A lot of people wish they could jump like him. Even Michael [Jordan] wishes he could jump like him."
NOTE: The last time Maryland played host to a nonconference team ranked in the top 10 was Dec. 24, 1983, when Lefty Driesell's Terps won, 89-76, over No. 6 Boston College, which then was coached by Williams.