More than 90 minutes before Maryland practiced yesterday afternoon, the sound of a bouncing basketball could be heard throughout an empty Cole Field House. Steve Blake, the Terrapins' freshman point guard, juked imaginary defenders, shot jumpers and zig-zagged across the empty floor, seeming to enjoy the moment.
After a rough start to the season, including an eight-turnover game against George Mason on Dec. 27, Blake had two of his finest performances last week. He helped shut down two of the Atlantic Coast Conference's top scorers--Wake Forest's Robert O'Kelley and Clemson's Will Solomon--and led Maryland (13-5, 2-3) to its first two ACC victories of the season.
"He has had the tough assignment . . . there is no doubt about it," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said before yesterday's practice. "He is a very determined defensive player right now."
The Terrapins, who rose to No. 22 in the Associated Press rankings, play at North Carolina Wednesday. Before practice yesterday, Williams said he expects forward Terence Morris to play against the Tar Heels.
Morris, who missed Saturday's 74-62 victory over Clemson because of a sprained left ankle, did some drills in practice yesterday. Afterward, Williams said he wanted to see how Morris responds to his first activity since being injured before declaring the preseason all-American ready to play.
"We'll see how he feels" today, Williams said through an athletic department spokesman after practice.
Meantime, the Tar Heels (11-8, 2-3), who have lost four consecutive games, dropped out of the rankings for the first time since Feb. 6, 1990. Blake almost certainly will play a key role against North Carolina, whose best player is senior point guard Ed Cota. Cota, who finished second to Morris in voting by the media for preseason ACC player of the year, leads all ACC players in assists (8.6 per game) and is averaging 10.2 points per game. He is shooting 53.1 percent. He missed Saturday's 76-71 loss to Florida State because of a viral infection but is expected to play against Maryland.
So Wednesday will offer another challenge for Blake, who last week helped hold Solomon to 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting and O'Kelley to a career-low four points. Solomon is the ACC's leading scorer at 21.1 points per game.
Williams was quick to point out Maryland gave plenty of help any time Blake was beaten. But Williams also agreed Blake played much better than he had earlier in the season, when opposing point guards caused trouble for the Terrapins, and Blake's defensive abilities were questioned by many observers.
"I think I am playing a lot better," Blake said. ". . . Going in after playing a bunch of great point guards, I have everything down now. I'm not worried about any pressure defense they try to put on me. I am real comfortable with the offense, with the players around me. Everything has gotten better as the year has gone on."
Blake leads all players with 7.8 assists per ACC game. He is second in steals in ACC games, with 2.8 per game, to Morris. Blake, who has shown he likes to push the ball upcourt as fast as possible, also has done a better job taking care of the ball. After having four or more turnovers in 15 of Maryland's first 18 games, he has had three or fewer in the past four games.
"I'm not trying to make as many hard passes as I was early in the season," Blake said. "I'm just playing more sound than I was."
It still remains to be seen if Blake can be an offensive threat. He passed up a chance to take a potential game-winning shot in a 69-68 loss to Georgia Tech Jan. 16. But Williams, who said other coaches have noticed Blake's toughness, said he is pleased with the way Blake has played.
"He is doing a great job handling the ball, getting us into our offense," Williams said. "I keep telling him, I'm not worried about his scoring. That will be there in time. He has been asked to do a lot besides the scoring, as a freshman point guard. Without him this year, doing what he has done, we would not be where we are."
Terrapins Notes: Tahj Holden was named ACC freshman of the week. He had 29 points, 16 rebounds and 5 blocked shots in two games. With Morris out, Holden made his first career start in Saturday's 74-62 victory over Clemson. . . .
Redshirt freshman forward Calvin McCall has beaten North Carolina once this season, quarterbacking the Terrapins' football team to a 45-7 victory over the Tar Heels Oct. 23. McCall passed for 76 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 59 yards in the victory. North Carolina forward Julius Peppers, a defensive end in football, had two tackles in the game.