COLLEGE PARK - The battle for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference went from being a snowout to a surprising blowout yesterday, as No. 13 Maryland easily downed No. 10 Wake Forest, 90-67, at the Comcast Center.
The Terps (16-6, 8-3 ACC) got 21 points from Steve Blake and 19 from Drew Nicholas in the victory, which gave Maryland a half-game lead over the Demon Deacons (17-4, 7-3) for first place in the conference.
It was also, for all intents and purposes, the best game Maryland has played in more than a month. The Terps out-rebounded Wake Forest, 44-24, even though the Demon Deacons came into the game with the country's best rebounding margin (12.5 more a game than their oponents). Maryland shot 50 percent from the field, 90 percent from the free-throw line and closed the game with a 25-5 run.
"I'm really proud of the players, the way they prepared," said Maryland coach Gary Williams.
"There was so much back and forth about whether or not this game was going to be played or not. I thought we really kept our focus. ... Once we got control of the game, we did a good job of holding it."
Holding onto momentum has been a problem recently for Maryland, which is what made yesterday's thrashing - Wake Forest's worst loss of the season - all the more surprising. The Terps were coming off a game in which they barely slipped past last-place Florida State, and before that, Maryland suffered back-to-back losses to Virginia and Georgia Tech.
But Maryland took a 41-31 halftime lead, and Wake Forest never got closer than six points after that, shooting an abysmal 35 percent from the field and grabbing only 13 second-half rebounds.
"Our complete focus was on rebounding," said Tahj Holden, who scored a season-high 15 points. "We knew it was the thing we had to do in order to win this game. We played confident."
No one played with as much confidence as Blake, who made his 127th career start and broke Keith Booth's school record. The senior point guard ran Wake Forest ragged on both ends of the floor, dogging the Demon Deacons guards on defense while handing out nine assists on offense. He made only four field goals, but went 12 of 13 from the line and hit the game's biggest shot: a three-pointer at 9:22 in the second half that stopped a Wake Forest run and gave Maryland a 68-59 lead.
"We were really struggling for a basket at that point," Williams. "Steve's been pretty consistent in those situations. I think it relaxed everyone when that shot went in. Wake is a good team, and you know they're going to make a run, but we handled their run."
Blake's nine assists also gave him 903 for his career, which allowed him to pass Orlando Smart (San Francisco) for ninth place on the NCAA's career list.
Ryan Randle (13 points, 13 rebounds) also played one of his best games of the season, controlling the lane with his 6-foot-9, 255-pound frame. Cavlin McCall came off the bench and logged a career-high 28 minutes, scoring nine points and grabbing seven rebounds. McCall also guarded Wake Forest's Josh Howard most of the game, holding the ACC's leading scorer to 20 points on 6-of-16 shooting.
"Calvin really gave us the energy we needed," Williams said. "He and Nik [Caner-Medley] didn't let themselves get run off on screens when guarding Howard, and we gave them plenty of help."
The defending NCAA champions have won seven of the past eight meetings with the Demon Deacons.
Thanks to a crowd of 14,200 made up almost exclusively of Maryland students, the game had a unique and energetic feel. Snowy weather and poor road conditions left the status of the contest up in the air until 12:30 p.m., when Maryland athletic director Deborah Yow was told by ACC commissioner Fred Barakat in a conference call that if both teams and two officials were available, league rules required the game to be played - even if it that meant playing in an empty arena. Comcast Center seats 17,950.
Instead, the students (informed about the game through e-mails from the athletic department) came out in droves.
"It was really great for the student," Williams said. "I'm sure [with classes canceled] they were bored. This gave them a chance to let some of that energy out. I thought the place was really loud. It was a great crowd."
Next for Terps
Matchup: No. 13 Maryland (16-6) at No. 8 Duke (17-4)
Site: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, N.C.
When: Wednesday, 9 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)
W L Pct. W L Pct.
Maryland 8 3 .727 16 6 .727
Wake Forest 7 3 .700 17 4 .708
Duke 7 4 .636 17 4 .810
N.C. State 6 4 .600 13 8 .619
Virginia 5 6 .455 14 9 .609
Georgia Tech 5 6 .455 12 10 .545
North Carolina 4 7 .364 13 11 .542
Clemson 3 7 .300 13 8 .619
Florida State 3 8 .273 12 10 .545
Maryland 90, Wake Forest 67
Florida State at N.C. State, 7 p.m. Clemson at Virginia, 8 p.m. N.C. A&T at North Carolina, 8 p.m.
Maryland at Duke, 9 p.m.
Wake Forest at Georgia Tech, 7 p.m.
Maryland 90, Wake Forest 67