Fairleigh Dickinson 85
Gary Williams can't recall coaching players who absorbed more criticism than his Maryland players did last season. They bottled that frustration, used it as motivation during offseason workouts and charged onto the Comcast Center floor last night for the season opener with body language that reflected a renewed focus.
Unfortunately for the 24th-ranked Terrapins, the 111-85 victory against Fairleigh Dickinson provided little redemption for missing the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 1993. And not even the 17,950 fans who attended last night's game likely will review the performance in the coming days.
That's because Maryland players and coaches will board a plane today bound for Maui, where a sizeable challenge awaits: three games in three days against as many as three top 10 teams. Last night's performance was not perfect, but it could have been a more troublesome tuneup: Maryland's opponent Monday, ninth-ranked Gonzaga, trailed Idaho last night by a point at halftime before winning by nine.
"Everyone was just so excited to get going, and that's a good thing," forward Nik Caner-Medley said. "Some of the mistakes we made early were good mistakes, only because they were off energy and we were ready to play."
Perhaps more than anything, Maryland showed glimpses of success using full-court pressure, which is expected to be a staple of this year's team. And the Terrapins displayed a few options at point guard, which promises to be the position under most scrutiny.
Starting point guard D.J. Strawberry played his first regular season game since his season was cut short in mid-January, when he tore ligaments in his right knee. Strawberry, who had five assists and three turnovers, said he gets more comfortable with the position each day.
With the game nearly a deadlock in the first half last night, Williams opted to spell Strawberry with senior Chris McCray instead of Sterling Ledbetter, the junior college transfer. McCray, who said he was still learning the plays earlier this week to operate the point, provides Williams a reliable and consistent option.
The move worked last night, as McCray finished with six assists and no turnovers. With McCray at the point, Maryland went on a 15-3 run, sparked in part by center Will Bowers and guard Mike Jones, who finished with 22 points. Jones, Bowers and forward James Gist are among the players expected to make the most significant strides this season.
"The offense," Williams said, "was a very shared offense." Williams said his team's 32-of-38 performance at the free throw line was "encouraging" and stopped any potential run by Fairleigh Dickinson.
Fairleigh Dickinson gave top seed Illinois all it could handle for a half in last spring's first round of the NCAA tournament. This season, it did not bode well for the Knights (1-2) that they turned the ball over 21 times in an exhibition against Felician and 20 times in a season-opening loss to Wofford.
Williams plans to use Maryland's depth and athletic ability to employ a full-court press more than he did last season. At the start, Maryland used pressure to steal the ball four times in the game's first four minutes. During one sequence, Williams used a particularly athletic lineup, as Gist and Strawberry made back-to-back steals that helped open an early lead.
Maryland scored 50 points in a half for the first time since a 44-point rout against Liberty on Dec. 28. But there were several breakdowns defensively that kept the Knights within range in the first half. For instance, Jones fouled John Blackgrove on a three-point shot attempt. Blackgrove made the shot as well as the free throw that followed. Moments later, Ledbetter made a poor inbounds pass that was intercepted by Chad Timberlake, who raced to the other end for a layup. Caner-Medley fouled him in the act of shooting.
Neither last season's run in the National Invitation Tournament nor last night's victory afforded the Terrapins the chance to prove themselves on a meaningful stage. What they have long awaited, an opportunity to reclaim national recognition, finally arrives Monday.
"We're going there to take care of business," Strawberry said. "We're not going to have fun in Hawaii."
Terrapins Note: Maryland players voted McCray and Caner-Medley team co-captains.