Maryland Men's Basketball Team Defeats American

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Every time junior guard Eric Hayes brought the ball up the court last night, his opponent was staring up at him. More than a head shorter than Hayes, American guard Derrick Mercer kept up with his man but constantly was being overlooked, literally if not figuratively.

This was the way it was supposed to be -- Maryland, the ACC program steeped in tradition, entertaining but never seriously considering the merits of an American squad close in proximity to College Park but a vast distance apart from the Terrapins in terms of talent and potential.

Hayes and his Maryland teammates noticed the Eagles, sure. After being reminded routinely over the past several weeks that American defeated the Terrapins at this time last year, they would have been hard pressed to do otherwise. But in defeating American, 67-51, Maryland (8-2) displayed the swagger of a team taking care of its responsibilities.

"We're getting more confident just because we have a more steady rotation right now," said senior forward Dave Neal, who finished with 14 points and six rebounds. "We know who's going to be in the game, who's starting and in practice we get to play with those five guys every day. The more you play with those players, the more confident you get."

The Terrapins are not the squad most observers predicted them to be at the season's outset; this much they already had established. And while Coach Gary Williams wears defiance and confidence like the grizzled veteran he is, his players were more cautious in trying on both characteristics simultaneously.

The Terrapins maintained a 10-point cushion throughout the first half Monday night before inflating it to as many as 23 points after the intermission. For some in the crowd -- and for Williams along the sideline -- their were times early on when the lead seemed too close to unfold ones arms or remove one's hand from chin, telltale signs of apprehension.

After a 10-0 second-half run that extended Maryland's lead to 19, demeanors across the arena began to relax -- except for Williams's.

"It wasn't going to be easy; I knew that," Williams said. "But we just couldn't get it out as far as we thought we should have at halftime. . . . The second half, we played with a little bit more energy."

Having compiled wins of wide margins over inferior opponents already this season, the Terrapins were in search of a challenge that would fortify their self-assurance while not lacking tension.

So while Mercer -- listed at 5 feet 9 -- gave up seven inches to Hayes -- listed at 6-4 -- the diminutive guard still tallied 12 points and six assists.

But the Terrapins fulfilled their roles, as well. Junior guard Greivis Vasquez turned in another well-rounded performance, supplementing 13 points with five assists and five rebounds. As a unit, Maryland harassed the Eagles into 15 turnovers.

"You try to win the game any way you can, and if you can wear a team down, you try to do it that way," Williams said. "Sometimes, you have to do it that way."

This was what the Terrapins were supposed to do exactly one year ago when American rolled into College Park and departed with a 67-59 victory. Reflecting on that game -- Maryland's third straight loss in December 2007 -- several players admitted to taking the Eagles lightly, to being outworked and outhustled.

With just more than seven minutes remaining Monday night and the Terrapins up by 21 points, Vasquez started a fast break off a Sean Mosley block. He finished at the other end with layup preceded by a fake behind-the-back pass.

This December has gone differently for Maryland and as a result, its players are beginning to carry themselves in a different manner, one in which they can literally overlook an opponent without figuratively getting carried away with their superiority.

Vasquez -- never one to lack confidence -- puffed out his chest and headed toward the bench as a timeout was called. The difference on this night was that the rest of his teammates followed suit.

"This is not our goal, to beat American U," Vasquez said. "It's not like we happy, we going to have a great Christmas. No. This is a team that we're supposed to beat every night, so we beat 'em. We're better than they are."

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