Rising Terps burst bubble talk

With UM's Top 25 return, Williams wary of Clemson after back-to-back wins

College Basketball

February 01, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - From blowout losses to a season-ending injury to their best defender to a minor disagreement between their head coach and his star player, the Maryland Terrapins have proved over the past month that they know how to respond to adversity.

But can they handle prosperity?

Victories against then-No. 2 Duke and then-No. 22 Georgia Tech in the past week boosted Maryland back into the Top 25 at No. 22 and pushed aside the talk that the Terps heard frequently last season about being on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Even with lopsided losses to North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State, the Terps (13-5) will hit the midpoint of their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule tonight in solid position. They are 4-3 in the ACC, tied for fourth place with surprising Virginia Tech, which the Terps still play twice.

Of Maryland's final nine games, starting tonight against last-place Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum, only two of them - North Carolina and Duke - are against ranked teams, and both of those games are at Comcast Center, where the Terps are 10-1.

"A lot of teams go up and down during the season," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "Hopefully, this is just the start of things for us in terms of determination to play well every time out. If we can do that, we are pretty good."

Tonight represents another opportunity for Maryland to separate itself from the inconsistencies that the Terps suffered through last season. Last season's team never did win three straight league games during the regular season, but that can be accomplished tonight.

Clemson (10-10) has lost five straight games and is 1-7 in the league, tied with Virginia for last place, but the Cavaliers won the lone head-to-head game. The Tigers, who get significant minutes from five freshmen and two sophomores and are led by senior forward Sharrod Ford (Gwynn Park), have lost 13 straight to Maryland, the second-longest active streak by one ACC team over another.

Still, Williams is concerned about how his team can bounce back from two emotional victories. He has pointed out several times that the Terps are the only team in the league this season that has to play two games in three days with the second on the road. Several players were asked after Sunday's win over Georgia Tech if the Terps could be in for a letdown because of the Tigers' standing in the league.

"Not if the upperclassmen have anything to do with it," said junior point guard John Gilchrist. "We understand. We've been in this position before and it's up to us to really take the leadership role. We need to just step up and let everybody know that this is not the time to relax."

The Terps need only follow Gilchrist's lead. In the past two games, he has logged 79 of a possible 80 minutes, while outplaying Duke's Daniel Ewing and Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack, two of the better point guards in the country.

Against the Yellow Jackets, Gilchrist, whose play was maligned for much of January after a disagreement with Williams, made only one turnover in 40 minutes against a defense that picked him up in the backcourt with three different players.

"I think you are seeing how good John is as a basketball player," said Williams, who didn't seem too concerned about Gilchrist's ability to bounce back. Nor was Gilchrist, who said Sunday that he's ready for "whatever coach sends" his way.

"What he did yesterday against two really good guards [Jack and Will Bynum] was a great show," Williams added. "John had to come out and play really good defense and he did a good job."

While Gilchrist has deservedly gotten some of the credit for the team's revival last week, Maryland's defense, without one of its top performers in injured guard D.J. Strawberry, has made the biggest improvement. After allowing 53 first-half points against N.C. State, the Terps held Duke to a season-low 33.3 percent shooting on Wednesday and the Yellow Jackets to 35.1 percent.

Junior guard Chris McCray has hit just two of his past 21 three-point attempts, but he helped force Blue Devils sharpshooter J.J. Redick into a 7-for-21 effort and Georgia Tech's Jack and Bynum into a combined 6-for-26.

Williams wants Maryland to keep the Tigers off the offensive glass. And there is the matter of the Terps maintaining their focus and intensity for 40 minutes.

"I think we kind of figured it out," said junior guard Sterling Ledbetter, who had the best game of his Terps career on Sunday with five points and three rebounds in 12 minutes. "We told ourselves that we need to go hard for 40 minutes and when we do that, things work out. That's what we are going to keep doing."

Maryland tonight

Matchup: Maryland (13-5, 4-3) vs. Clemson (10-10, 1-7)

Site: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C.

Time: 7

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

Line: Maryland by 1 1/2

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