Terps Get Back Into Fray in ACC
Thursday, January 25, 2007
The Maryland men's basketball team has a habit this season of following moments of success with disappointing lapses. The Terrapins have needed adversity to bring out their best games.
Back-to-back road losses made last night's contest at Comcast Center as close to a must-win as any late-January game can be. But the Terrapins' 80-65 victory against Georgia Tech before an emotionally charged crowd of 17,950 revealed their resiliency, a characteristic they have demonstrated twice this month.
The performance marked the second time in two weeks that Maryland has offered an inspired performance after a significant setback.
On Jan. 13, three days after a costly home loss to Miami, Maryland regrouped to beat Clemson, which had been the nation's lone undefeated team.
"Our backs are still against the wall, and we love being in this position," D.J. Strawberry said. "When we are in this position is when we play the best, when everyone doubts us and says we're not going to do anything. We're all battlers and warriors on this team, and we all want to win bad."
The Terrapins (16-5, 2-4 ACC), who had been inching closer to joining Wake Forest in last place in the conference, could not afford to lose another home game, let alone against a Georgia Tech team they will not face again this regular season. Last night's victory could have tiebreaker ramifications in the ACC standings.
And while North Carolina has established itself as the premier ACC team, at least eight other schools are contending for an unknown number of at-large NCAA tournament bids. Last night's victory allows Maryland to maintain ground with that group of eight and retain hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.
Maryland Coach Gary Williams said his message to his team before the game was to play like it had in Sunday's overtime loss at Virginia Tech. While he acknowledged after the Georgia Tech victory that it was an important win, he said, "It wasn't life or death."
Williams said he felt some critics had begun to lose faith in the team and that it felt nice to be able to "throw it back at some people sometimes."
The Terrapins built a 20-point first-half lead and were never seriously challenged. The catalyst from the outset was forward James Gist, who scored a career-high 26 points and made 10 of 11 shots. Gist nearly matched his career high in the first half, when he scored 16 points and made all six of his shots.
Maryland's pressure defense, employed in large doses from the game's start, was just as key, forcing the Yellow Jackets to commit 13 turnovers in the first half.
Georgia Tech, which lost its 16th straight road game, entered the contest as the ACC's best shooting team, but Maryland's frenetic defense forced the Yellow Jackets to make only 41.4 percent of their shots in the first half. What's more, Georgia Tech (13-6, 2-4) made only 1 of 17 three-point attempts last night.
"Their pressure rattled us," Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt said. "We didn't execute against their press offense, and then we started to back down."
Heralded point guard Javaris Crittenton, who had been the team's leading scorer in ACC play, struggled in Saturday's game against North Carolina much as he did last night, when he made 2 of 10 shots and scored a season-low five points. Williams credited his freshman point guard, Greivis Vasquez, with being able to stay in front of Crittenton defensively early in the game.
"I wasn't afraid of him," Vasquez said. "He's okay. He's not like an NBA player you have to be afraid of. I was just playing good defense."
Maryland seemed to feed off Gist, who scored nine of Maryland's first 13 points. Late in the first half, Gist sank a three-pointer, only the fifth of his career, and then converted a resounding dunk.
On the horizon for Maryland is another two-game road stretch, including Tuesday's game at Florida State. That will be no easy challenge for a team that has won only four of its past 19 ACC road games.
Another dose of adversity, however, may be just what the Terrapins need. After last night's victory, Vasquez put two fingers together and said, "We're this close to being a great team."