Maryland 75, Arkansas 62
-- When D.J. Strawberry picked up his fourth foul with 18 minutes remaining, Maryland Coach Gary Williams was forced to sit his best point guard and defensive stopper. He immediately called upon a reliable and sure-handed alternate, option 1A.
It was fitting Chris McCray cut to the front of the line for postgame handshakes because, while he received ample help from front-court teammates, the guard owned the second half of Maryland's 75-62 victory over Arkansas in Wednesday's fifth-place game of the Maui Invitational.
McCray scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half, during which he ably assumed Strawberry's duties at point guard as well as Strawberry's defensive responsibilities against an all-American candidate, the second McCray has guarded in three days. Although playing with a sore left hamstring, McCray helped hold Arkansas' Ronnie Brewer without a field goal in the final 14 minutes.
"We had to suck it up," Williams said. "No D.J. for the next 14 minutes, which is fine. If we are going to be any good, we can't rely on one player. They just made up their minds they were not going to let down with D.J. out."
To that end, if three grueling days in paradise have taught Williams anything, it is that his Terrapins (3-1) are "resilient." The 23rd-ranked Terps played two games early in the morning, including Wednesday, and faced three schools with diverse playing styles, losing only to eighth-ranked Gonzaga.
When Williams walked on the floor at the Lahaina Civic Center on Wednesday, he encountered a mirror image, and not because Arkansas Coach Stan Heath wore an identical beige outfit. Much like Maryland, Arkansas (2-2) featured a team of athletes, lost only one starter from last year's team who decided to turn pro early and endured a late-season losing streak that crushed NCAA tournament hopes.
The primary difference between the programs is star power, namely Brewer, the 6-foot-7 Southeastern Conference preseason player of the year who came in averaging 24 points. Brewer finished with 19, but only made 2 of 7 shots in the second half.
"We did not think they were going to be more athletic than us," Brewer said, "but they proved that they are, if not more, at least as athletic. The big guys stepped up to get a body on me, which made it real difficult to get an easy shot."
Three Maryland front-court players, Ekene Ibekwe (16 points), James Gist (11) and Travis Garrison (10), were assertive offensively. Gist's dunk over 7-foot Steven Hill gave Maryland a 49-46 lead and an emotional spark. But just as impressive was how the big men assisted McCray in checking Brewer after he repeatedly curled around screens that slowed McCray.
McCray relishes such assignments. Twice he held Duke's J.J. Redick, considered the nation's best shooter, to sub-par shooting percentages last year. And Monday, McCray held Gonzaga's Adam Morrison to 25 points, 18 fewer than he scored Tuesday against Michigan State.
"I like to play defense," McCray said. "Coach says it's not technique as much as effort. If I score two points and the guy I'm guarding scores two and we win, I'm happy."
With 18 minutes 9 seconds remaining, Strawberry stood a few feet in front of the basket when he was knocked over by Brewer on a dunk attempt but called for the foul. Heath thought Strawberry's fourth foul was going to prompt a swing in the momentum of the game, which was tied at 31 after Brewer's two free throws.
"We thought we could pick up some defensive intensity and try to create turnovers" with Strawberry out, Heath said. "McCray did a nice job handling the pressure. I was not sure he would be comfortable in that role, but he proved he would be able to do so. We also thought we'd be able to do things [with Brewer] but I'll give McCray more credit. He fought through screens and challenged Ronnie a little bit."
With three minutes to play and the game still in doubt, Brewer missed a step-back jumper after McCray kept his balance and extended a hand to Brewer's face. "He really believes this is his team," Williams said. "He feels we can be really good, but he is going to do as much as he can to make that happen."