During the resurgence of the Maryland men's basketball team, the improved play of Mike Jones had been overshadowed by inspired performances by reserve big men, freshman point guards and more vocal seniors. But late in Sunday's improbable comeback against North Carolina, the shooting guard played the lead role in what likely was the most important six minutes of his career.
Everything from clutch late-game free throw shooting to tenacious rebounding contributed to Maryland's rally from a 12-point second-half deficit that enabled the Terrapins to claim their fifth straight ACC victory. But even D.J. Strawberry, moments after a masterful all-around performance, refrained from talking about his own efforts and instead pointed to the teammate beside him, Jones, who scored half of his 18 points in the game's final six minutes.
When asked about the key to the turnaround, freshman Greivis Vasquez simply said, "Mike Jones put us back in the game."
It was the breakthrough performance teammates such as Strawberry had said would come from Jones, the much-maligned starting guard who had long been labeled a one-dimensional player and who has been having an inconsistent senior season.
In December, Jones made a combined 16 three-pointers against University of Missouri-Kansas City and Mount St. Mary's. But he went scoreless in a critical Feb. 3 victory at Wake Forest and only made 3 of 11 field goals in an equally important win against Duke on Feb. 11.
"He's up and down if you look at his scoring, but he gives you more now than he did when he was younger," Coach Gary Williams said. "He plays defense. He is a better ballhandler, a better rebounder. Before, if he didn't shoot it well, it was like, that was it."
In the past, Jones displayed remarkable accuracy beyond three-point range, once making 20 consecutive three-pointers in practice, but lacked the skills to penetrate or consistently create his own shot. In fact, last year he shot as well from three-point range (42 percent) as he did from inside the arc.
This season, he is shooting significantly better inside the arc (49 percent) while maintaining accuracy from three-point range, where he makes 42 percent of his shots. His closing flourish Sunday demonstrated how Jones has diversified his offensive repertoire.
Seven seconds after North Carolina missed an open layup, Jones found himself eying an open three-pointer. Although he had missed all four of his earlier three-point attempts, Jones released the shot without hesitation.
The five-point swing lifted the crowd to a higher level of fervor and set the comeback in motion. Less than two minutes later, freshman Eric Hayes flipped a pass to Jones for a jump shot that narrowed the deficit to four points.
Williams said the biggest difference between the first half, when Maryland shot 40 percent, and the second half, when the Terrapins shot 64 percent, was the ability of front-court players to set screens. In the game's final four minutes, Jones used those screens to curl into the lane and make two short jump shots, the second of which gave Maryland its first lead of the game.
"Our big men did a great job getting me open," Jones said. "Once I am open, it is my job to make the shot. It felt good coming off the screen, and it felt good shooting it. I wanted to continue that and I was in a rhythm."
Jones, a native of Dorchester, Mass., was immediately a fan favorite when he arrived in College Park four years ago because of the considerable hype he received. Through the four-year journey to become a more complete player, much of that hype has been forgotten, even by his own teammates.
After Sunday's game, Vasquez said one of the team's best qualities is its star-less philosophy, adding: "You can't see any McDonald's all-Americans in here. You can't see any Michael Jordans in here."
In 2003, Jones not only was a McDonald's all-American, but he was rated the second-best high school shooting guard behind LeBron James. At Maryland, Jones maintained the scorer's mentality that earned his high school accolades, but defenses were more equipped to contain him.
The turning point, he said, occurred midway through his junior season when he decided to "sacrifice" some of his point totals so he could make other contributions. The adjustment has helped Jones improve his shot selection and reduce his turnovers. For the first year of his career, Jones does not average more turnovers than assists per game.
And the change in mind-set helped Jones turn in his most significant performance at Maryland and keep his team surging toward the NCAA tournament.
"You can get your team involved as far as giving out assists, grabbing rebounds or playing defense, little things," he said. "When I realize my game is not on for a game or a half, I try to do different things that will get me in the rhythm of scoring. Or guys will look for me a little more."
Terrapins Note:Strawberry was named ACC player of the week for the second consecutive week.