By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
LAHAINA, HAWAII -- At worst, Maryland's full-court press serves as a life preserver, an effective means of evening the playing field on a night when its opponent holds critical advantages. At best, it is a tool capable of causing a foe to self-destruct.
Against a Cincinnati squad fortified with an abundance of physical, athletic weapons, the Terrapins' press fell into the first category -- prolonging Maryland's hopes for as long as it could, but eventually succumbing to circumstances out of its control. The Bearcats defeated Maryland, 69-57, Tuesday during the semifinal round of the Maui Invitational, handing the Terrapins their first loss of the season.
"The good thing is if we do get behind we don't have to change a whole lot," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "We might press more, but we do have the ability to press, and so we can go to that and hopefully get a couple of steals. The problem we had [Tuesday] was when we stole the ball a couple of times and got fouled, we missed the foul shots, or we missed a couple of layups when we stole the ball."
Maryland (5-1) tallied nine steals and forced Cincinnati to commit 15 turnovers -- 11 in the second half. But, as Williams noted, the Terrapins could not capitalize on enough of their scoring opportunities to close the gap on the Bearcats. Maryland shot 35.8 percent from the field and 54.8 percent from the free throw line.
The subplots entering Tuesday's matchup concerned a Cincinnati guard once on Maryland's wish list and a Maryland front court at a significant size disadvantage facing the Bearcats' front court.
The Terrapins heavily recruited freshman guard Lance Stephenson last spring before pulling out late in the process. Stephenson eventually settled on Cincinnati.
"Lance gets up for just about every game, but this particular one he came out with an energy and not wanting to lose at all," Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates said. "He kind of got us going."
Stephenson tallied 11 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists against the Terrapins. Nine of Stephenson's points came in a first half in which Williams believed his players lacked the necessary energy level.
With eight seconds remaining before halftime, Stephenson lofted a three-point attempt with Maryland guard Cliff Tucker's hand in his face. The ball clanked off the rim, but Cincinnati guard Dion Dixon jumped up uncontested and tipped it into the net.
"The last play of the half was a pretty good indication of how we played the half," Williams said. "In other words, we did a great job on the shooter, got a piece of the ball, and we had four guys standing there while some guy got it and put it back in the basket before the buzzer."
For the first 20 minutes Tuesday, Maryland stuck primarily to jump shots and zone defense. The result -- a 13-point halftime deficit -- was unsavory, but not entirely disastrous.
Out of the intermission, Maryland employed a full-court press that temporarily caused the Bearcats to flinch. Several Cincinnati turnovers enabled the Terrapins to close within seven points. And on offense, Maryland made a more concerted effort to get the ball into the lane and attempt to draw trips to the free throw line. Senior guard Greivis Vasquez broke out of his scoring slump and tallied a game-high 19 points.
But eventually the Bearcats adjusted and began to break Maryland's press with regularity. Once it settled into its half-court sets, Cincinnati possessed the biggest target on the court -- the 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward Gates, whose 13 rebounds helped the Bearcats to a 47-33 rebounding edge over the Terrapins. Gates scored 17 points.
"The whole game plan was to get it to him," Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin said. "Our patience wasn't quite there as far as taking the time to get Yancy the ball down low near as much as I would have liked to. So a lot of his baskets, to be honest with you, were on the press break."
In the end, Maryland's white-knuckled defensive efforts could not contain Cincinnati's balanced lineup. With just less than five minutes remaining and the Terrapins trailing by 14 points, Cincinnati guard Deonta Vaughn broke through the Maryland press and sent a pass to Gates, who finished with a transition dunk.
As senior guard Eric Hayes went to retrieve the ball, all he could do was shake his head.