One year later, Terrapins have really grown on us

College Basketball

December 01, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

COLLEGE PARK -- OK, so the Maryland men's basketball team and its Top 25 ranking might be legit after all. It didn't seem so obvious even before the trip to Maui last week, but after last night, well - a win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge can make an impression.

This year, it was the right impression. Last season, you'll recall, it was at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge that Maryland's high ranking first became suspect. Yes, that loss was at Wisconsin, which was on a lengthy home win streak, but the way the Terps lost - they drowned in a sea of bad shots and untimely turnovers, and John Gilchrist's train started going off the track - was an omen.

Fresh off the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, they looked a little young and full of themselves. By season's end, they weren't ranked anywhere, except on season-ending lists of the nation's most underachieving teams.

The 83-66 win over Minnesota last night at Comcast Center, then, brought the Terps full circle. They clearly have grown up. If you weren't sure going into the game - if you saw signs of them being a steadier, headier team even in the loss to a clearly under-rated Gonzaga team, but didn't really trust them this early - then this should have eased your mind a little.

Honest, even after their latest bad start. Minnesota, as short-handed as it was (only eight players dressed), playing on the road and coming off an ugly loss (Gardner-Webb? At home?) should not have been allowed to bolt out to a 15-point lead midway through the first half.

But the Terps all straightened themselves out. And "all" means a lot. This team is deep, and Gary Williams needed everything every player gave. For some reason, he believed he would get what he wanted. He was right.

There are plenty of players on this year's team that were around last year, and last night they played as if they were a year older and a year wiser. Afterward, Williams didn't hesitate when asked if the '04-05 edition, the ones who ended up in the National Invitation Tournament, could have withstood Minnesota's inspired opening rush, the surge of three-pointers, the 23-8 lead.

"To be honest with you, I don't think so," Williams said. "We went through some things last year. It made us stronger. I just like these guys. The chemistry is unbelievable. They really trust each other."

The gap in that senior leadership that coaches desire so much was evident last season. On this year's team, though, the leadership and maturity run so deep, it also comes from the underclassmen. Nik Caner-Medley lit a spark in last night's comeback, and so did Travis Garrison, who had lost his starting spot only to get a reprieve last night thanks to a flu bug running through the front line.

But junior D.J. Strawberry did as much to light the fuse as the seniors, and he didn't even wait until the huge deficit formed, giving up his body (and nearly Johnny Holliday's in the process) diving for a loose ball at the scorer's table three minutes into the game. His reckless disregard for his safety, his rehabbed knee and everyone in his path truly made a mark during the rally late in the first half and the way the Terps blew it open in the second.

Chipping in was a fellow junior, Mike Jones (Who?), and the offensive explosion off the bench that was always such a tease in his first two years here.

Filling in the cracks all around were senior Chris McCray, junior Ekene Ibekwe and sophomore James Gist. Williams kept shuffling lineup combinations, and they all worked - especially when they committed to pressing and trapping the depleted Golden Gophers in the first half.

The Terps outscored Minnesota 33-8 in the first 10 1/2 minutes of the second half. That's insane. This is a team that cranked up its defense and never, ever lost its composure. Instead, they broke the other team's composure.

That was the opposing coach, Dan Monson, who wigged out in the middle of Maryland's stampede early in the second half, somewhere between Strawberry's drive into the teeth of the defense and Garrison's steal and layin off the ensuing inbound.

Williams quickly gathered his players around him on the court to remind them to stay cool in the din of the Comcast fans as Monson exited. They didn't even need it. They seemed rattle-proof last night.

What a difference a year makes.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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