Cavaliers In First; Terps in Trouble

J.R. Reynolds
J.R. Reynolds and Virginia flex their muscles, taking sole possession of first place in the ACC with a road win over Maryland on Tuesday. (The Post)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

With his team trailing by 10 points, Maryland Coach Gary Williams marched off the court at halftime, pumped his fist twice in the direction of the crowd and hollered: "We're going to win this game. C'mon!"

Maryland players finally played with the spirit of their fiery coach, but not until the final 10 minutes of last night's 69-65 loss to Virginia before a frenzied crowd of 17,950 at Comcast Center. It was only after Williams benched four of his starters for a brief second-half stretch that the Terrapins awoke from their lethargy and rallied from a 15-point deficit.

But when freshman Eric Hayes missed a contested jump shot from the top of the key with five seconds remaining, the outcome was sealed for two schools moving in opposite directions in the final month of the regular season. Heading toward a third consecutive appearance in the National Invitation Tournament is Maryland, which dropped to 17-7 and 3-6 in the ACC.

The Terrapins likely need to win five of their remaining seven games, starting Sunday at home against Duke, to have a chance to earn an at-large NCAA tournament invitation.

Virginia (16-6, 8-2) improved its ACC winning streak to seven games, its longest in 25 years, and took sole possession, at least for a day, of first place in the conference. "We can be mentioned in the same breath with" North Carolina and Duke, Cavaliers guard Sean Singletary said.

The Terrapins were plagued by the same problems they faced in the Jan. 16 loss to Virginia in Charlottesville: rebounding, free throw shooting and defense. Last night, Maryland lost the rebounding battle by 13 and made only 8 of 15 free throw attempts. Virginia had more offensive rebounds (18) than Maryland had defensive rebounds (17).

In the first meeting, streaky forward Mamadi Diane, the former DeMatha standout, scored a career-high 26 points. Last night it was another forward, reserve Adrian Joseph, who hurt the Terrapins, making three three-pointers and scoring 13 points.

Williams has made a concerted effort to remain positive with these Terrapins, and he was able to maintain that mind-set even after last night's crippling loss. But he was quick to acknowledge his team's lack of intensity in the first half, saying, "They played harder than we did in the first half."

For most of the first half, Williams oscillated between being angry and incensed on the sideline. Seven minutes into the second half, Williams had seen enough. He inserted seldom-used reserve Dave Neal and kept four starters, all except freshman Greivis Vasquez, on the bench for nearly two minutes.

It was a telling move at a critical juncture of the game. Williams said, "I was willing to try anything at that point."

When the regular starting lineup returned, they trailed by 15 and defeat looked certain. D.J. Strawberry said: "We aren't practicing like this. I don't know what made us come out like that. We knew that it was one of the biggest games of the year and we came out missing shots and we waited too long to try to make our run."

Strawberry's hustle and defensive play helped fuel the rally. Maryland sliced the deficit to four with six minutes to play and to two with 54 seconds remaining when Hayes made a three-pointer from the top of the key. Hayes said he saw his defender, Singletary, take a step back, which gave him the room to get a good look.

With 28 seconds left, Strawberry intercepted a pass but was called for a foul that enraged much of the crowd, to say nothing of Williams's reaction. Then with 11 seconds remaining, J.R. Reynolds, who made several jump shots under duress and scored a game-high 23 points, sank two free throws to give the Cavaliers a three-point advantage. Hayes was near the three-point line when he attempted his final jumper, but it was not close.

Virginia won its third straight ACC road game without the best performance by Singletary, who made 4 of 10 shots and had four turnovers.

"Singletary did not have his 'A' game today, but you need team wins sometimes if you're going to keep winning games," Virginia Coach Dave Leitao said. "I'm just extremely proud of our guys."

Maryland, meantime, could use a few team wins of its own to keep its postseason hopes from fading even further.

"In this league, if you win the ACC tournament, you're in the NCAA tournament," Williams said. "What we want to do is play well and win against Duke, and we will go from there."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company