Blake has hot hand, but team still theme

Point guard's big game underlines variety of ways Terps are finding to win

College Basketball

February 01, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Senior point guard Steve Blake sounded joyful, defiant and cautious. Just like a veteran who pretty much has seen it all.

After two superb hours of work at Comcast Center, during which he led the No. 10 Maryland Terrapins to a 75-60 victory over the tenacious North Carolina State Wolfpack on Thursday night, Blake had much to digest.

On a night on which the Terps struggled to find offensive rhythm and had trouble generating quick points for a while against the Wolfpack's slow-down, spread offense, Blake was the engine that kept humming.

He scored early and often, making all four of his three-point attempts to highlight a game-high, 20-point effort. And he stayed smart and unselfish by dishing out seven assists with only two turnovers in 37 sterling minutes of play.

On a night on which some antagonistic pre-game comments by N.C. State guard/forward Julius Hodge lent added tension to the contest - he and Blake had exchanged blows during last year's regular-season series - the one-on-one battle never materialized, mostly because Blake was too good, too poised.

The pair barely exchanged words or glances, simply choosing to play hard and play clean. Blake burned Hodge in the open several times with long-range shots or crossover dribbles, but rarely guarded him, leaving teammates Nik Caner-Medley and Calvin McCall to bottle up the Wolfpack's best player during a quiet, 14-point effort.

"This isn't church. There's going to be some times when it's tough out there on the court," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "I thought [Blake and Hodge] did a great job of just playing basketball. Both guys didn't back off. They just played."

After playing one of his more complete games of the season, the quarterback of this increasingly dangerous Maryland (13-4, 6-1) team could not resist firing a shot of we-told-you-so.

After all, the Terps, with four starters gone from last year's NCAA championship squad, were sitting atop the Atlantic Coast Conference, having won nine of their past 10 games, looking very ready to defend their regular-season conference title.

"There wasn't much jawing going on out there [between him and Hodge]. He was trying to hype his team. I just blocked it out and played the game for Maryland. I made it Maryland versus N.C. State, not Blake versus Hodge," said Blake, the team's lone returning starter and one of five seniors who comprise the starting lineup.

"This feels great, but it's still early. There's a lot of tough nights ahead. But we seniors have a positive attitude. We believe we're going to win every game. Whether it's going down low and banging or hitting threes or it's an ugly win or a pretty win, getting the win is all that matters. I know a lot of y'all didn't think we'd be in this position."

Since losing its third game in four outings against Florida on Dec. 14 and falling to 4-3, the Terps have transformed themselves.

They are becoming a 10-man crew with a different combination of heroes emerging on any given night. They are presenting one of the more potent pressure defenses Williams has coached in recent years. And like the Juan Dixon-Lonny Baxter teams that went to back-to-back Final Fours, they are creating more winning formulas as they roll along.

On Thursday night, Maryland's shots - with the exception of Blake's - weren't falling early. The Terps missed too many free throws. They gave up too many backdoor layups and open threes. For the second straight game, senior center Ryan Randle (six points, four rebounds, four turnovers) was barely visible.

But the Terps kept pounding away on the glass, finally got senior guard Drew Nicholas (13 points) untracked after a scoreless first half, started hitting three-pointers from all angles and delivered 14 unanswered points in the middle of the second half with a knockout dose of full-court pressure.

When it was over, Maryland had allowed the Wolfpack to shoot 45.5 percent - a season high against the Terps - and make 53.8 percent of its three-point attempts in the second half. But it didn't matter. Maryland, which has forced an average of 17.4 turnovers against seven ACC opponents, had used its depth to level N.C. State with 21 forced miscues and 12 offensive rebounds.

While backup guards John Gilchrist and Chris McCray were quiet this time, reserve forwards Jamar Smith and Caner-Medley carried the bench. Smith soared for a career-high 10 rebounds in 26 minutes, also a career high. Caner-Medley had nine points and three rebounds to go with his five steals.

"It's tough to focus on one player. If you focus on Drew, Ryan or Steve or myself might have a big night, or somebody off the bench might do it. That's hard to defend," said senior forward Tahj Holden, who made 8 of 11 free throws while scoring 13 points.

"This is definitely our personality. It's not necessarily going to be pretty every game. We're not going to score 100 points every game. What we're going to do is win games."

Next for Terps

Matchup:No. 10 Maryland (13-4) vs. Loyola (4-14)

Site:Comcast Center, College Park

When:Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

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