By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Nov. 27 -- Gary Williams rode the elevator down to the bottom floor of the Milk House at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex with the sly grin of a coach who knew his team had just upset the natural order of its environment. Maryland, Williams's squad, had just knocked off No. 5 Michigan State, and the coach allowed himself the 15-second descent to revel in a multilayered accomplishment.
For starters, the Terrapins advanced to the winner's bracket of a tournament in which they were supposed to be an afterthought. Maryland's 80-62 victory over the Spartans in the Old Spice Classic pushed the Terrapins' record to 4-0. The team's best player, junior guard Greivis Vasquez, tied for the game high with 17 points, but did so within the flow of an ever-improving offense.
And while Williams appreciated all of those deeds, it was the impact Maryland's win forced on the opinions of those outside the program that seemed to give the coach a heightened sense of glee.
"This keeps 'em quiet for a day, anyway," Williams said as the elevator door closed and the cables began to lower.
Williams was referring to his team's numerous questioners, the ones who have criticized from seemingly the first day of practice for all that it was not. The Terrapins heard frequently that they had no post presence, that they had no consistency, that they had no capable weapons other than their marquee attraction.
Thursday night, in front of a largely pro-Michigan State crowd, the Terrapins set out to demonstrate that while they may not be a lot of things, what they are has the ability to suffice just fine.
The Terrapins pushed the ball just as furiously as did the Spartans, the only difference being that Maryland did so with some level of restraint. Michigan State recorded 15 turnovers on the night and forced up many shots sure to draw the ire of Coach Tom Izzo.
"We knew some of their guards' tendencies, whether they were a great shooter or they liked to drive," junior guard Eric Hayes said. "It was just a concerted effort to keep guys in front of us and playing great defense."
For instance, Hayes continued, the Spartan he was charged with covering -- Travis Walton -- was known to drive rather than to pull up for a perimeter shot, which led Hayes to give Walton an extra step on the outside and be more attentive to approaching screens.
Michigan State relied on its guards more than usual because of a front court depleted by injury and foul trouble. The Spartans' starting center, 6-foot-10 Goran Suton, missed the game because of ailments in both knees. Star forward Raymar Morgan -- who entered the night averaging 21.5 points per game -- scored just four points on 2-of-4 shooting. After drawing his third foul with just less than eight minutes remaining in the first half, Morgan did not return until well into the second half, missing nearly 12 minutes of action.
Maryland's own big men took advantage of the favorable circumstances. Sophomore forward Braxton Dupree had seven points and six rebounds, which led Williams to claim it was Dupree's best night in a Terrapins uniform. Senior Dave Neal recorded 17 points and five rebounds.
"I went out there and played my usual game," Neal said. "I stayed within the offense and didn't do anything spectacular, got some rebounds and I knocked down the open shot."
The same could be said for Vasquez. After Michigan State rallied to take the lead soon after the start of the second half, Maryland went on a 14-2 run in which Vasquez played a large role without over-asserting himself, securing a spot in today's game against No. 9 Gonzaga at 5:30 p.m.
"I don't feel any type of pressure that I've got to do everything by myself," Vasquez said. "Yes, I did take some tough shots, but I'm a junior; I've still got to work on some things."
In the process of upsetting Michigan State, a team widely picked to advance to the Final Four, Maryland revealed what it is, rather than what it is not -- intense, advantageous and resilient.
The elevator hit the bottom floor, and the door opened. Williams's grin dissolved into the stern look of a coach who knows his team may, indeed, have only quieted its critics for just a day.