Setback offers Terps tutorial in intensity

December 04, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- --It wasn't so much that the Maryland men's basketball team lost last night. The Terps weren't going to go undefeated, after all; the 1976 Indiana team can rest easy. And it wasn't so much that they lost to a Notre Dame team that hadn't beaten anybody of substance, or that they lost in the BB&T Classic, again. Gary Williams seems to enjoy playing at Verizon Center about as much as he does at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

No, it wasn't that they lost. It was how they lost.

They played as if they really hadn't begun the season 8-0, that they really hadn't run over teams that had been expected to give them a fight, that they hadn't gone into a pit like Illinois and stolen a win. They played last night as if their freshmen weren't really that precocious, and as if their upperclassmen hadn't wrapped the cloaks of leadership around them so comfortably.

"To come out and play like this, it eats away at your stomach," said senior D.J. Strawberry, who looked and sounded as if it really had eaten away at his stomach.

It's safe to assume Gary Williams' stomach was not too settled, either. Ideally, in his mind, Strawberry's and others in charge of guiding this team, the impact of this 81-74 loss will sink in. Everybody will realize what they're capable of (those eight wins), what it took to achieve it (defense, smart play, defense, focus, more defense) and how easily they can lose if they slip up the way they did last night.

They'd better. A few more repeats of this performance, and the 8-0 start, the No. 23 ranking and the early statement wins will be forgotten, and the Terps will be answering questions they've heard too often the past two years.

After Tuesday's shocker in Champagne - the strong start, Illinois catching and passing them, then the burst at the end - there had been a lot of talk about this Maryland team possibly being special. This puts that talk on hold for a while, because they lost their focus and grip so easily.

Their early peek at ACC play (their only conference game for a month, before things get serious in January) comes Sunday at Boston College. The way this loss unfolded makes that game even scarier.

"I tell the guys that you learn from wins, and you learn from losses," Williams said, "and we didn't do a good job of learning from the Illinois situation. ... You shouldn't have to go through this. You should be able to learn from the Illinois situation and play the same way against Notre Dame. You should continue to play with the same intensity level, and we didn't do that."

Losing intensity is the last thing anyone who watches this team and this coach would expect. It would be a constant, you'd figure - the Terps might not play well every night, but they'd play hard. Giving up 15 straight points in a three-plus minute span, then allowing shot after open shot the rest of the way to kill any chance of recovering or mounting a serious comeback - that's not the sign of a team that's fighting from tip-off to buzzer.

It's the sign of a young team - not the youthful team that exploded early, late and whenever necessary to many of those eight season-opening wins, but a group that plays and thinks young. It had seemed the Terps had grown up during their great start. Now we know there's growing yet to do. Not a big surprise, but we definitely were fooled for a little while.

The aforementioned freshmen, Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez, suddenly looked and played their age. Few of the seniors and juniors were there to pick them up, and that was a too-scary flashback to the problems of the past two years.

"I'll take responsibility for it, as a senior and a leader," Strawberry lamented. "We didn't do the things that got us here. If we have to take that on our shoulders, I'll do it. But we can't play like this. We can't come out like this for games."

Strawberry shouldn't beat himself up over it, not with the strength of character he has shown over the years, and definitely not with the way he flung himself all over the court all night, even after needing help to the bench after falling hard on his right knee - yes, the post-surgery knee - in the first half and coming back after a short trip to the locker room.

In spots here and there, most of the upperclassmen played well: Ekene Ibekwe, James Gist and Parrish Brown for long stretches in the first half. Collectively, for long stretches, they looked in over their heads, and something less than special.

If lessons are to be extracted from losses - even one loss, one month into the season - this one gives Maryland an entire semester's worth.

From the way the anguished Strawberry sounded, this lesson is going to stick.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog.

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