The Washington Times - December 13, 2008, 10:18AM

Cliff Tucker needed a moment like this.

He’d been active all night, darting into passing lanes and making slick passes in transition.

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But in the closing moments of an 86-58 rout of Delaware State, here was a chance to unshackle a lot of frustration.

A lot.

And so he did, going from steal, to halfcourt sprint to authoritative one-hand slam, his head perhaps cocking just a teensy bit toward the Maryland bench.

Tucker’s solid night came at the expense of Delaware State, not Duke, so some perspective is in order. But his season arc was not promising before yesterday, so scoring seven points to go with six assists, five rebounds and two steals might be precisely what he needed.

“The last couple weeks have been tough for me,” Tucker said. “I went from starting to basically not playing at all. It was tough for me, but I don’t want to get myself down. The season’s still early.”

Indeed it is, and that was essentially coach Gary Williams‘ message to Tucker when they met earlier this week.

Time remains on the sophomore’s side. More than two-thirds of the season remains. And Maryland is going to need Tucker before things are through.

“It wasn’t my playing. He said he didn’t think I was focused,” Tucker said. “I just wanted to keep my head in it.”

Mission accomplished. Tucker played the final 13:35, well after things were decided. But that wasn’t the point.

Instead, his passing was crisp (the six assists matched a career-high), his decision-making sound. Aside from a missed shot on a fast-break, it was difficult to remember a particularly bad play.

“He was very active and made some things happen,” Williams said. “That’s the type of player Cliff needs to be for us. That was good to see also.”

In the giant jumble for playing time early in the season, someone was likely to play their way out of minutes and someone would probably be flat-out bested for a chance to play. The latter was Tucker’s fate after Adrian Bowie’s strong start and Williams’ admiration for freshman Sean Mosley’s intangible skills.

It isn’t permanent. Tucker’s athleticism will help in the long-term, and he is especially valuable when Maryland wants to press. He looked quite improved in the preseason before a sluggish start landed him on the bench.

But there’s still a spot for him in the rotation – and quite a big one if games like last night’s become the norm.

“Cliff’s a good player. In practice, he does some pretty spectacular things,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “The thing with him is, he’s in a pretty tough situation because he was starting and now he’s coming off the bench. Anytime you have a player like that, you’re going to take that hard on yourself. I think he’s trying to get his spot back. I think he’s hungry, and he’s using it as fuel to come out and play hard.”

Patrick Stevens