COLLEGE PARK - When starting center Lonny Baxter and forward Tahj Holden ran into early foul trouble, it seemed like a time for concern. But Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams just yawned and sent in the other big man.
Every coach should have such a luxury.
Reserve sophomore center/forward Chris Wilcox entered the game with 13:59 remaining in the first half, and left with 19 points, six rebounds, two blocked shots and a standing ovation after 25 minutes of playing time.
And No. 5 Maryland left with a 76-63 win against No. 2 Illinois last night at Cole Field House.
Coaches try to downplay big wins early in the season, and they may have a point. But you have to like the way the Terps (4-1) played last night. They came back from a deficit in the first half, played gritty defense, had great intensity, and held Illinois' backcourt in check.
And Maryland showed it could rebound against Illinois, a team that shoved the Terps around last year. Most of the grunt work came from Wilcox.
He carried the Terps on his broad shoulders, especially in the game's last eight minutes. With Maryland ahead 61-49 with 7:26 left, he bounced a pass inside to guard Juan Dixon, who missed a turnaround jumper, but was fouled and connected on one of two foul shots for a 62-49 lead.
Wilcox had two steals late in the game, including a strip of Illinois' Damir Krupalija, which eventually led to a Drew Nicholas layup that put Maryland ahead 64-51 with 6:28 left.
Wilcox converted on the first of two foul shots with 4:04 left, and his biggest basket may have come on a turnaround sky hook to put Maryland ahead 68-58 with 2:36 remaining. He also had a layup with 1:41 left, but that was just an encore basket.
The ESPN highlight package was complete.
"I'm going to take a look, I may have a few of them on there," said Wilcox, laughing.
It was a nationally televised game, and Wilcox had a coming-out party. He has always been extremely talented, but had trouble learning the offense last season. He spent a lot of time watching Terence Morris, Baxter and others from the bench.
But his time is coming. You can't keep this guy on the bench. He's just too big, too talented and too much of a force not to have on the floor. He has as much raw talent as Morris, minus the three-point jump shot.
Let's go even further: He's potentially the most talented front-line player at Maryland since Len Bias.
He's got a soft touch and an explosive first step. Big men aren't supposed to glide the way he does. And those dunks, they aren't merely exciting. They are back-breakers, momentum-changers.
Illinois coach Bill Self got a close-up view. "Wilcox just owned us inside. I think he's great."
Said Williams: "He practices against Lonny and Tahj every day. He is a lot more comfortable with the offense now because he is getting more playing time. He is a lot more focused, knows where to get open more. He has unlimited potential as a player."
With 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field, Wilcox set a career high in scoring for the second game in a row. He scored 16 against Delaware State on Saturday, when he added a career-high 10 rebounds for his first double double.
The frustration of sitting on the bench last season is starting to pay off as well as an off-season in the weight room.
"It was tough for me last season," Wilcox said. "But I knew what I was getting into playing behind Terence and other guys who were already here. I just had to stay patient, continue to work hard and improve. In the off-season, I worked hard on my post moves and being aggressive around the basket."
Wilcox was a beast in the first half. Illinois was supposed to have the bangers with 6-11 senior center Robert Archibald, 6-10 junior forward Brian Cook, 6-9 forward Krupalija and 7-2 freshman center Nick Smith.
But Wilcox set the tone early.
On an assist from Steve Blake, his first basket and dunk came with 11:44 left in the first half. Nearly a minute later, he scored off an offensive rebound to cut Illinois' lead to 17-16. His layup with 7:53 remaining gave Maryland a 24-18 lead, and then Blake fed him with an alley-oop for a dunk 26 seconds later that kept Maryland 's lead at eight.
The dunk got the place rocking, and Maryland went on another scoring binge to forge a 41-29 lead. At the break, Wilcox had nine points and five rebounds in 12 minutes. More importantly, he set the pace and tempo inside.
When Illinois guards Corey Bradford, Sean Harrington and Frank Williams were beating Maryland off the dribble, Wilcox was sliding to make their shots more difficult. He played a complete game. He had to. On a night when three of Maryland's starters didn't score more than five points, the stage belonged to Wilcox.
The other big man played well.