Maryland Answers Questions, Clemson

Ekene Ibekwe, James Gist
Ekene Ibekwe, center, and James Gist, right, both jump to swat a Clemson's player shot attempt. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

For two years, D.J. Strawberry and James Gist experienced how one bad loss could quickly turn into a season-spoiling losing streak. So Thursday, one day after a costly home loss to Miami, they called a 15-minute players-only meeting to tell their Maryland teammates to focus solely on what they considered a must-win game.

"We got the point across," Strawberry said. "It had to stop. We had to win. We had to play as if our life depended on it."

The meeting helped the Terrapins follow their worst offensive effort in years with their most important victory of the season, a 92-87 triumph over 17th-ranked Clemson yesterday before 17,950 at Comcast Center.

Maryland ended its four-game losing streak against Clemson, which entered the game as the nation's lone unbeaten team. The Terrapins (15-3, 1-2 ACC) also avoided starting 0-3 in conference play before they embark on a difficult stretch that will include playing four of the next five games on the road, beginning Tuesday at Virginia.

"The bottom line is -- we don't lose at home," said Ekene Ibekwe, who scored a team-high 20 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds. "We definitely would have been in a hole at 0-3."

Three days after shooting a season-low 22 percent against Miami, the Terrapins shot a season-high 62.7 percent against the Tigers. Maryland scored 92 points despite attempting only four three-point shots.

Maryland Coach Gary Williams said one of his challenges the past few days was to convince his players to continue to look to score inside even though they had missed several close-range shots against Miami.

"We worked hard the last two days," Williams said, "and tried to be a very confident team walking out on the court today."

One of the keys to the improved offense was Maryland's movement of the ball. Williams did not mind the 20 turnovers because many were made in attempts to get the ball to teammates with scoring opportunities.

Williams felt the biggest reason for the victory was that the Terrapins won the rebounding battle 35-29, against the ACC's best offensive rebounding team. Six Maryland players grabbed at least three rebounds.

"There was no indication after the Miami game that would happen today," Williams said. "That took a lot of willpower on the part of the players."

Clemson's K.C. Rivers said the Maryland players appeared "highly motivated and highly confident." Usually boisterous freshman Greivis Vasquez was chest-bumping teammates as if the Terrapins had won an NCAA tournament game. But in the hallway leading to the locker room, usually reserved senior Will Bowers also was equally jubilant.

Williams had second-guessed whether he used his bench enough against Miami. Against Clemson, the reserves were pivotal in never allowing the Tigers to get closer than five points in the second half.

During a two-minute stretch of the second half, Parrish Brown made three consecutive plays to push the lead back to double digits. The point guard swished a three-pointer, flipped a pass to Gist for a layup and made his own layup on three straight offensive possessions.

Later in the game, Clemson whittled the deficit to five when another reserve, Bowers, asserted himself on both ends of the floor. First, freshman Eric Hayes fed Bowers for a layup. Then Bowers blocked a shot that gave the ball back to Maryland.

While Clemson players left the court amid chants of "over-rated," history suggests that the Tigers (17-1, 3-1) won't soon fade. Since 1995, the last team to remain unbeaten each season has reached at least the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.

Clemson demonstrated it is sound, but the Tigers struggled at the free throw line, making only 5 of 13 attempts. For the first time in 29 games, Clemson lost with James Mays, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds, in the lineup.

Rivers, Clemson's sixth man and leading scorer, did his best to keep the Tigers close in the first half. Rivers used screens to shake Strawberry and score 16 of his 18 points before halftime. In the second half, Strawberry got defensive help, and Rivers said his back stiffened, limiting his effectiveness.

Gist supplemented his words in Thursday's meeting with a 10-point first half to give Maryland a six-point halftime lead. Strawberry and others said the Miami loss was a "fluke," an effort they won't dwell upon as they head into a challenging stretch of road games.

"This is our team," Mike Jones said of the Maryland performance. "This is what we can do when we put it all together."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company