Terps go to Ibekwe from start

Ailing forward expected to be back in the lineup against Minnesota in new inside role


COLLEGE PARK -- Instead of practicing at Comcast Center yesterday with his teammates, Maryland junior forward Ekene Ibekwe spent the afternoon in the university health center with a stomach virus, and an IV pumping fluids into his body.

Coach Gary Williams said Ibekwe, the team's leading rebounder, is likely to rejoin the starting lineup at 7:30 tonight when the No. 23-ranked Terps (4-1) host Minnesota (2-1) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

The fact that Williams needs him there is a new role for Ibekwe, who came off the bench in nine of the final 11 games last season and was the team's fifth-best shooter.

Now, after changing the release of his shot during the offseason and rededicating himself to the weight room, Ibekwe has strengthened Maryland's inside game, and in the process become a player the team has come to rely on.

"We need him," Williams said. "Nobody gave him that at the start of the year. He played himself into that situation. He's been working really hard."

After Maryland's 88-76 loss to then-No. 8 Gonzaga in the opening round of the Maui Invitational last week, Williams gathered his players and told them to start working the ball inside and trust the offense -- something the Terps didn't do against the Bulldogs.

When Maryland struggled from the perimeter against Arkansas in the final game of the tournament by going 3-for-12 from three-point range, the post players made the difference. Ibekwe scored a team-high 16 points and made three blocks, and forward Travis Garrison led the Terps with seven rebounds.

Maryland has out-rebounded all five opponents this season by an average of 11.

"It's been very important for us because we have a lot of guards, and basically have been guard-oriented for a couple of years now," guard D.J. Strawberry said. "For [Ibekwe] to step up and have an inside presence will be huge for our team so we can have an inside-out game. If he keeps stepping his game up like he has, we're going to be a great team this year."

Ibekwe, who started 18 games last season and averaged 8.4 points, has started every game and is second on the team with an average of 13.6 points. He leads the Terps with 6.4 rebounds a game.

"I feel real confident," he said after getting 15 points and six rebounds in Sunday's 88-56 win over Nicholls State. "I know it's my junior year, and I really wanted to have a good year this year both individually and a team. We had a bad year last year. It wasn't anything to be proud of. I just told myself to work hard."

Williams said the biggest difference in Ibekwe's game this season is his shot. Instead of releasing the ball with his forearm practically across his forehead, he's shooting it more from between his eyes. Williams said he talked with Ibekwe last spring about tweaking it.

"If you look around, and watch all the great players, nobody shoots like that," Williams told him. " ... This year he shot it well enough where people have to guard him and he's quick enough to go around some people."

Ibekwe said he put too much pressure on himself last season, and now isn't overthinking the game.

"I'm just taking my time, putting a lot less pressure on myself, playing hard, playing smart, not picking up quick fouls," he said. "When I do that, that's when I play my best."

And his teammates have benefited from it.

"He has a lot more post moves and he's carrying us on the blocks," guard Chris McCray said. "It's allowing me and D.J. to get out there and pass because we know if we get beat, Ekene is always right there and there will be no easy shots."

Notes -- Minnesota star guard Vincent Grier will not play tonight because of a broken finger, but forward Dan Coleman, who missed the Gophers' 73-72 loss to Gardner-Webb on Monday because of a family emergency, could return. Maryland is 3-3 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and 2-0 against Minnesota, but the teams have not met since 1961. ... The Atlantic Coast Conference has won this event every year. ... Maryland senior forward Nik Caner-Medley is 12 rebounds shy of 500 for his career. heather.dinich@baltsun.com

Minnesota@No. 23 Maryland

Tonight, 7:30, ESPN2, 1300 AM, 105.7 FM Line: Maryland by 14

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