St. Francis Xavier 59
In the final minutes, D.J. Strawberry sat with a broad smile and with a towel draped around his neck. He was finally at ease after playing 24 minutes in a game that had nearly 10 months of buildup.
The junior tore ligaments in his right knee in mid-January, prematurely ending last season. But Strawberry relentlessly rehabilitated during the offseason, dedicating himself to the weight room in the hope of making his return to the court yesterday in Maryland's first exhibition game. He said he almost started crying at one point but managed to hold back tears.
"I wouldn't say nervous, but I was anxious," Strawberry said following Maryland's 90-59 victory over St. Francis Xavier. "I just wanted to be the player I always have been. Then I realized I am the point guard and have to play calm."
Maryland's point guard duties this season are expected to rest largely with Strawberry, whose only true experience at the position came occasionally during his freshman year. Yesterday he collected seven assists and six of Maryland's 18 steals.
"We didn't have that last year," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said of the defense.
He could have been talking about the passing as well. Forward Nik Caner-Medley and other players have been looking forward to seeing how well the offense operates with a pass-first point guard this season.
Strawberry's first shot did not come until more than six minutes elapsed, and he took only four shots overall.
Williams believes one of Strawberry's biggest contributions is enthusiasm, particularly on defense. During one second-half sequence, Strawberry and guard Chris McCray stepped into passing lanes on consecutive possessions to intercept passes in the open court.
In the first half, Maryland displayed a full-court press that helped force 16 turnovers. St. Francis Xavier finished with 33, "which is two games worth for us," Coach Steve Konchalski said.
While pressure defense was a key, Williams felt Maryland's 16-point halftime lead was attributed to the play of guard Mike Jones, who is one of several players looking for a key slot in what will be an eight- or nine-man rotation.
Jones scored 19 points off the bench, including 17 in the first half. He missed only two of his nine shots, which included a botched layup.
Jones made 3 of 4 baskets from beyond the three-point arc, which was pushed back nine inches in an NCAA rules experiment.
"He surprised us a bit because he was not a highlight on our scouting report," Konchalski said. "But he definitely played like a key player today."
Overall, Williams liked some aspects of his team's performance, but he felt there were too many fouls committed and that backup point guards Sterling Ledbetter and Parrish Brown both "struggled."
"This is like a test," Williams said. "We had three weeks of school, this was the first exam and you find out you didn't study enough for certain things."