Maryland 83, Minnesota 66
Maryland players looked to the opposing bench and saw a team missing its leading scorer and dressing only seven scholarship players. They looked at an unranked school that on Monday lost to a hyphenated program, Gardner-Webb.
Those observations might have fostered a false sense of security in last season's Maryland team, which was prone to erratic play. The 10 returning players have vowed to show more maturity this season, and last night's 83-66 victory against Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge bolstered that sentiment even though it was laden with tenuous moments.
The 23rd-ranked Terrapins (5-1) staggered through a first half in which they trailed by 15 points and were dominated in rebounds 21-8. Last season's team, Terps Coach Gary Williams said, would probably have folded under similar conditions.
"We're a different team," he said. "That's not putting it on one guy or anything. We went through some things last year we all grew from. I just like these guys, the chemistry is unbelievable. The way they treat each other, these guys stick up for each other and it's just great to see."
As a result, Maryland is off to its best start since the national championship season of 2001-02, thanks to a ferocious second-half run that helped the Terps overcome their fifth poor start to a game this season.
Less than three minutes into the second half, Maryland was already rolling, having erased a six-point halftime deficit with a 12-1 run, when Minnesota Coach Dan Monson provided another emotional boost.
Monson wanted a timeout after Maryland had taken a five-point lead when the Terps stole the ball and forward Travis Garrison scored under the basket. Minnesota, however, inbounded the ball as an irate Monson stormed onto the court, took off his jacket and hurled it near the midcourt line.
Monson was immediately whistled for two technical fouls, which automatically warrants an ejection, the first in Monson's seven seasons at Minnesota. The Comcast Center crowd of 17,950 roared while Williams frantically gathered his players to settle emotions and tell them to prepare for a Minnesota run.
On his way to the locker room, Monson peeked inside Maryland's huddle to wish Williams good luck. With their coach whisked away, the Golden Gophers (2-2) saw their chances for an upset vanish just a minute later, when Maryland used the emotional surge to grab a 10-point lead with 16 minutes 26 seconds remaining.
"I apologized to three officials after the game and to my team," Monson said. "I feel like when they needed me to fight the most, I wasn't there."
Maryland withstood the first-half struggles behind hot shooting from guard Mike Jones and forward Nik Caner-Medley, who finished with 16 points. The second half belonged largely to Garrison and point guard D.J. Strawberry.
Garrison started in place of James Gist, who had the same stomach virus that caused teammate Ekene Ibekwe to miss Tuesday's practice. In his 100th game at Maryland, Garrison tallied his sixth career double-double with season highs in points (18) and rebounds (10).
"I took that personally when they got a lot of put-backs and offensive rebounds," Garrison said. "That really hit me to the heart."
Meantime, Strawberry said he got on himself at halftime, as did Williams. During the break, Strawberry told teammates, "My bad," and pledged to show more emotion in the second half.
It did not take long for Strawberry, who finished with 14 points, 5 assists and 4 steals. Seven seconds into the half, his above-the-rim pass to Ibekwe for a dunk inspired teammates. And his back-to-back baskets, including a three-point play, gave Maryland a three-point lead moments before Garrison's steal and layup.
In all, Maryland scored 29 points on Minnesota's 22 turnovers.
"It was quick," Minnesota forward J'son Stamper said of his team's downfall. "Their pressure is amazing."
Minnesota was a shell of itself without injured Vincent Grier, a dynamic 6-foot-5 slasher who was an all-Big Ten selection last season and is sidelined with a broken finger. The Golden Gophers still boasted plenty of experience in the back court with Maurice Hargrow, 22, and Adam Boone, 24, both of whom carry the offense in Grier's absence.
But Hargrow played only nine minutes, and none in the second half, because of a leg injury. And Maryland took full advantage of Minnesota's shortened bench.
"We're growing," Williams said.