Tahj Holden sat in front of his locker late Wednesday night, grinning broadly after the best game of his brief collegiate career. In 18 minutes, the freshman forward from Little Silver, N.J., scored 17 points and grabbed six rebounds, helping 24th-ranked Maryland defeat Wake Forest, 73-51, at Cole Field House.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Holden made 5 of 7 shots, including all three three-point attempts, giving the Terrapins a much-needed boost as they ended a three-game losing streak and earned their first Atlantic Coast Conference victory this season.
As reporters gathered around Holden, the question everyone wanted answered was: How did this young reserve, who had been averaging 1.5 points per game, suddenly become an impact player?
"I felt like I have been playing better since Christmas," Holden said, flashing a smile that displayed his braces. "Getting used to the system and everything took me longer than I wanted to. After Christmas, I came back ready to go."
Maryland (12-5, 1-3) might really need Holden to be ready Saturday, when it hosts Clemson. Coach Gary Williams said yesterday that an ankle injury might keep star forward Terence Morris out of Saturday's game. Morris, who was hurt while trying to set a pick with 5 minutes 15 seconds remaining Wednesday night, did not practice yesterday and might not practice today.
"Hopefully he will be able to play," Williams said of the Terrapins' leading scorer.
If Morris cannot play, Holden might replace him in the starting lineup, quite a move for a young reserve who played just one minute of Maryland's 80-70 loss to No. 5 Duke on Jan. 10. After that game, Williams decided to increase Holden's playing time, but Holden fouled out in eight minutes during a 69-68 loss to Georgia Tech this past Saturday. Williams said yesterday Holden has earned a more prominent spot in the playing rotation based on his recent play in practice.
"He has gotten more aggressive," Williams said. "The knock on him coming out of high school was that he wasn't very physical for as big as he is. Going into college, the contact is more physical than at any level of high school. It takes a while to get used to it."
Holden has appeared more comfortable on the court the past two games, willing to engage opponents in physical contact in the lane. He also seems comfortable on the perimeter, where he played in high school. On Wednesday night, he made one of the game's important shots, a three-pointer from the left corner that gave Maryland a 49-34 lead midway through the second half and seemed to put the game away.
"Tahj played extremely well," sophomore guard Juan Dixon said. "Coach said Tahj was going to get more minutes and he deserved it."
Still, Williams knows Holden has plenty of room for improvement. He looks to the future and sees Holden as a 260-pound player capable of playing in the low post or on the perimeter and giving opponents fits.
"That puts you into another dimension when you get that big," Williams said. "If you can combine the two--the strength and the shooting--you have a special player. If he works at it, he has a chance."
Williams also is trying to teach Holden how to be a better defender without fouling. On Wednesday night, midway through the second half, Holden was called for a foul while battling for position on defense. As the teams headed to their respective benches for a television timeout, Williams kept Holden on the court just in front of Maryland's bench and called over game official Ted Valentine to review what Holden had done.
"I just told [Holden], 'You have to defend yourself out there, but try not to be too obvious,' " Williams said. "He did not back off, and Wake is always physical."
Terrapins Notes: Maryland has won 20 consecutive home games when leading at halftime. . . . The Terrapins have won 23 of their past 25 home games, with the losses to Duke. . . . Tickets are available for Saturday's game.