Sweep Success for Terps

D.J. Strawberry and Mike Jones
Seniors D.J. Strawberry, left, and Mike Jones combine for 42 points, leading the Terps to their sixth straight win Wednesday. (Sara D. Davis - AP)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

DURHAM, N.C., Feb. 28 -- From the moment Greivis Vasquez walked onto Coach K Court for pregame warmups on Wednesday night, the Maryland freshman wore the look of a player who had been there before. He did not chuckle when Dick Vitale bodysurfed through the crowd, he did not flinch when fans heckled him in Spanish.

A little more than three hours later, he exited Cameron Indoor Stadium after an 85-77 victory that guaranteed the Terrapins will be no worse than a No. 5 seed in next week's ACC tournament. With his father beaming in the crowd, Vasquez made a Cameron debut that will be remembered as long as this rivalry is played.

"I love when the crowd is on me," said Vasquez, who had 13 points, a career-high 12 assists and 9 rebounds. "They were trying to make me mad. They were talking about the president of Venezuela. I love it. It was so nice. I've got three more years, and it's going to be fun. They might be worried about me now."

Three weeks ago, it was uncertain whether No. 24 Maryland would be in contention for the NCAA tournament this late in the season. But after collecting its sixth straight victory, Maryland (23-7, 9-6 ACC) enters the sport's defining month as one of the nation's hottest teams.

"They are playing as well as anyone," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They are as good as we have played. No question. I think they could go against anybody."

Over a 17-day span, the Terrapins have beaten Duke twice and North Carolina once. They have gone from a team with no margin for error to a program eyeing a strong seed in the NCAA tournament. And they will become the first team in ACC history to start 2-5 in conference play and finish with a winning record.

Sharp passing enabled the Terrapins to build a 12-point second-half lead. But No. 14 Duke (22-8, 8-7) tied the score at 64 with 5 minutes 39 seconds remaining when Jon Scheyer sank a three-pointer.

Vasquez had a parting shot for the Blue Devils. With a little more than a minute to play, he fired a pass inside to Ekene Ibekwe, whose dunk gave Maryland a seven-point lead, the separation it needed to close out a regular season sweep of Duke for the second time in three seasons.

After the game, Terrapins Coach Gary Williams acknowledged his team wouldn't have been able to respond to Duke's late-game run a month ago, when Maryland was fighting inconsistency.

That was before sharpshooter Mike Jones became a consistent offensive threat in big games. He followed his 18-point effort in Sunday's victory over North Carolina with 25 points against Duke. The senior made 4 of 5 three-point attempts.

Now the Terrapins have reserve big men such as Bambale Osby grabbing nine rebounds in nine minutes of action in the first half. They have seniors such as D.J. Strawberry carrying the team down the stretch, like he did again in his 17-point effort Wednesday.

"We have come miles from where we were at," Strawberry said.

But the game belonged to the rivalry's newest showman, Vasquez. He finished with three more assists than the entire Duke team. His play was contagious. Maryland had 25 assists on 33 field goals.

Strawberry said he did not tell Vasquez or fellow freshman Eric Hayes anything about what Cameron would be like because he wanted it to be a surprise. James Gist, however, told the emotional Vasquez before the game that he had to make sure he didn't get "caught up with the fans."

After he made back-to-back three-pointers in the first half, Vasquez could not help but glance at the Cameron Crazies and make eye contact with some of the fans.

Williams wants his players to tune out praise during this winning streak, much like he wanted them to block out criticism during January's struggles. The players display what they call a swagger on the court, but they have avoided complacency.

A confidence also has returned, at least publicly, within their coach. On Tuesday, Williams defended the emotion of his fans and said, "If I see another story on Krzyzewskiville, I might get a little sick."

That was ample ammunition for Duke's fans, who placed the quote at the top of their cheer sheet. But Maryland's players relished competing in the environment, particularly Vasquez. Earlier in the season, he also excelled in road games at Clemson and at Illinois.

After the game, Vasquez joked with teammates in a locker room that was somewhat tempered considering Maryland had completed its first regular season sweep of Duke and North Carolina since the 1938-39 season. Williams walked toward Vasquez and joked that he should have had one more rebound.

Vasquez was fighting a cold, but he managed a smile.

"A lot of people don't think we're good," Vasquez told a reporter. "The game was on ESPN, so I don't know, maybe people were watching it. It's Maryland."

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