Close UM friends, closer defenders

Rally starters Strawberry, McCray second that emotion


COLLEGE PARK --As Maryland guards D.J. Strawberry and Chris McCray shuffled out of Comcast Center on Wednesday night, bundled in oversized sweatsuits and carrying their 11 p.m. dinners in Styrofoam containers, it was impossible to tell they are the Terps' two best defenders.

As they talked and laughed, though, it was easy to see they're close friends, which might be why early last week, neither guard would directly answer the question, who is a better defender?

"I don't want to put him out there like that," Strawberry said with a chuckle.

"We play two different ways," McCray said.

What's similar about it, though, is their emotion. The two have become as close as brothers over the past two seasons, and in the process, developed an intangible connection on the court. The duo is the heart of Maryland's defense, and both players have an infectious energy that seems to bubble over when their teammates need it the most.

"Those two together, it's kind of scary in a way," said senior teammate Travis Garrison. "They're helping our team out in a lot of ways.

"They know when to gamble, when not to gamble," he said. "That's tough for opponents. It's that intimidation factor, when you have guys that athletic and that quick. D.J., he's just messing with people the whole game. And then you have Chris, who's reading the passes like Juan [Dixon] used to do when he was here."

After proving early they can guard some of the top shooters in the country, Strawberry and McCray will be tested again at 9 tonight, when No. 23-ranked Maryland (5-1) faces No. 19 George Washington (4-0) in the 11th BB&T Classic at MCI Center.

Senior forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who made five blocks and had five rebounds in last year's 101-92 upset of Maryland, returned to the lineup last week after missing the first three games of the season for NCAA violations that related to his early declaration for the NBA draft.

Two weeks ago in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, McCray was faced with the task of guarding preseason All-Americans Adam Morrison of Gonzaga and Arkansas guard Ronnie Brewer.

Strawberry picked up his fourth foul with 18:09 remaining in the Arkansas game and took a seat, but McCray took over guarding Brewer, who was held to two field goals and seven points the rest of the game.

"I chase people around, don't like giving them easy jump shots, and D.J's one to get out in the passing lanes," said McCray, who is second on the team in assists and steals to Strawberry. "That's my goal, just to be in their face every time they catch the ball to make sure they ain't got no space to shoot the ball. That's what I try to do, just ride their backs as close as I can. D.J. is the total opposite. He likes to get out in the passing lane."

When Strawberry missed the final 18 games of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, it was up to McCray to guard the opponent's top scorer. Coach Gary Williams said he developed into one of the team's best defenders. The two of them together now help the Terps control the ball in transition defense, and don't let the opponent penetrate.

"They're both real good when they're on their game defensively," Williams said. "They're long, they're quick, they have experience. It's a pretty good combination. They were on their way last year."

When Maryland is trailing significantly in the first half - as it has done in four of its past six games - Strawberry, a junior, will look at the scoreboard and roar with anger, or shake his head in disappointment. McCray, a soft-spoken senior co-captain, is more reserved, until the momentum of the game overrides his emotions, and he gives one of his teammates a chest bump.

The two got to know each other when Strawberry, a native of Corona, Calif., joined the team in 2003. McCray, who graduated from Fairmont Heights in Capitol Heights, knew his teammate "didn't really get any home-cooked meals," and offered Strawberry some hospitality and "a family atmosphere."

Now, McCray said, they're "like brothers." When Maryland starts to slip, Strawberry and McCray will make eye contact on the court.

"We really know what that means," said McCray. "Sometimes on the court I know what he's thinking, and when we get down, we know we have to start something and get into passing lanes, getting easy steals and easy points."

Said Strawberry: "When we're both out there, we feel we need to get the team going emotionally when we have bad spurts, when we get down. We feel like we need to turn it up and turn it around, get a steal or a couple easy layups and a dunk, and get the team going like that."

Maryland was down by 15 points against Minnesota last week when the Terps scored seven unanswered points, including a basket by Strawberry off his steal, and the following shot by Mike Jones off an assist from McCray.

And three days earlier, in a win over Nicholls State, Strawberry collected a career-high 12 assists - three of which fell into the hands of McCray for three-pointers. Against No. 8-ranked Gonzaga two weeks ago, McCray and Strawberry combined to score all of Maryland's points in a 7-1 run that closed the deficit to 27-26 with 4:28 remaining in the first half.

McCray had a season-high four steals against Gonzaga, and Strawberry did the same in last week's rally against Minnesota.

"Chris sometimes, he takes it so personally when we're not playing good because he's the captain and he's one of our leaders," Strawberry said. "He comes up with big shots sometimes, like big threes, or big steals. It gets us going. When I see that and see him step up, it makes me want to step my game up and I think everybody else does the same thing."

No. 23 Maryland vs. No. 19 George Washington

Tonight, 9, Comcast SportsNet, 1300 AM, 105.7 FM

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