ATLANTA -- Eleven players represented Maryland last night at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, one fewer than the Terps started their season with.
The spring semester officially began yesterday, and therefore so did life without senior guard Chris McCray, formerly the Terps' leading scorer.
Senior forward Nik Caner-Medley assumed that role yesterday, scoring a game-high 33 points to lead No. 18 Maryland to an 86-74 win over struggling Georgia Tech before a crowd of 9,191.
Though the game lacked electricity and was slowed by 57 fouls and 79 free throws, it carried with it plenty of meaning for a team trying to unburden itself from a month full of disappointments.
McCray, who was averaging 15.2 points and was one of the Terps' top defensive players, was declared academically ineligible two days before the game because his grade point average fell below the 2.0 required by the NCAA.
His departure from the team midway through the season left Maryland faced with the task of restructuring its lineup, while at the same time attempting to get its first conference road victory of the season. More than anything, it raised the question of whether Maryland can avoid repeating last year's failure to make the NCAA tournament, the first time the Terps missed it since 1993.
"I think we have to prove something to people every night," junior guard D.J. Strawberry said. "Now that we lost Chris, I think a lot of people are going to doubt us and say we're not going to be [an NCAA] tournament team, or whatever, we're not going to be a good team this year. But we believe in ourselves and believe in this team."
Maryland (14-4, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) has won three straight ACC games heading into Saturday's nonconference game at Temple. Georgia Tech (9-8, 2-4) lost its fourth straight game and trailed Maryland for all but the opening two minutes.
The Terps turned the ball over 25 times but made 41 of 45 free throws.
For the Terps, it was an emotional game.
As the final minute ticked off the clock, and even with a comfortable lead, Maryland coach Gary Williams was particularly animated, still pointing his finger inches away from his players' noses as they sat on the bench and listened to him scream. He also yelled back at Georgia Tech students who were taunting Strawberry when he was at the free-throw line.
"I heard one cheer I didn't like," he said. "That's me. I protect my players."
With the victory, Williams tied Lefty Driesell as the all-time winningest coach at Maryland with 348 wins.
Junior guard Mike Jones was thrust into McCray's starting role and scored seven points - including four free throws - in a 10-2 run in the first half that put the Terps ahead 36-26 with 5:26 remaining. It was their biggest lead of the half.
"I just knew regardless I had to go out there and step up," Jones said. "Taking that starting role is a big role to play, but at the same time, it's no pressure on myself. When you're a basketball player, you love the game so much, you don't really worry about starting or coming off the bench, as long as you really play."
Jones took a seat about three minutes into the second half when he picked up his third foul. He came back in and finished with 12 points, including six of six from the free-throw line.
Caner-Medley scored nine points in a 13-1 run that finally gave Maryland an ample cushion, at 63-45 with 11:07 left to play.
"You can't replace a guy like Chris," Caner-Medley said. "You just have to work extra hard and play well as a team. ... At this point in the season, we can't make excuses. We just need to understand we don't have Chris anymore and we have to do the things necessary to win, and tonight we did."
Maryland's defense - which had been last in the ACC even with McCray- held the Yellow Jackets to 36.7 percent shooting from the field.
Sophomore forward James Gist started for the third consecutive game ahead of senior forward Travis Garrison, who was charged earlier this month with a fourth-degree sex offense and a second-degree assault for an incident alleged to have occurred in a College Park bar in late October.
Strawberry started the game at point guard, but he was replaced at times by senior Sterling Ledbetter, but also played sparingly at shooting guard. Junior Parrish Brown also saw some time at point guard. Eight players got at least 13 minutes of playing time.
The Terps shot just 35.5 percent from the field in the first half, but still managed to go to the locker room with a 43-35 lead. Much of that can be attributed to their nearly flawless performance from the free-throw line, as Maryland made 18 of 19.
Combined, the teams shot 31 free throws in the first half, drastically slowing the pace of the game. By the end of the half, five Yellow Jackets had already incurred at least two fouls, including forward Jeremis Smith and guard Anthony Morrow, Georgia Tech's top two scorers, respectively. Smith played only six minutes and Morrow 12 in the half.
Ra'Sean Dickey and Morrow each scored 18 points for the Yellow Jackets.
Williams said simply getting on the court was a "relief" after the week's events.
"It's been a pretty tough week this week in College Park," Williams said. "I just have to give a lot of credit to where it deserves to be, and that's with the players. Talk about distractions, there were a lot of distractions.
"We know we can win," he said. "That was big tonight, to get it early. I knew sooner or later it would happen, but it's nice to get it that first game to prove to ourselves we can do it."
No. 18 Maryland@Temple
Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2, 1300 AM, 105.7 FM