- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

The Maryland basketball team won’t have long to wait to figure out whether Saturday’s crushing loss was a fluke or the start of a trend.

The No. 22 Terrapins visit No.4 Wake Forest tomorrow on the heels of a 109-75 loss to No.3 North Carolina. The Terps collapsed defensively, were outrebounded 49-28 and converted only two of 22 3-point attempts Saturday. Maryland was fortunate to avoid its worst conference loss ever.

“You have to move on quickly from something like this,” coach Gary Williams said. “Hopefully, we’ll play better. You have to be tough enough to get up [emotionally] when you play Tuesday night.”

Wake Forest (13-1, 2-0) doesn’t offer any relief, though. The Demon Deacons have one of the ACC’s top backcourts in Justin Gray and Chris Paul and standout big men in Jamaal Levy and Eric Williams.

It’s a pivotal game for the Terps despite coming in January. Another blowout would indicate Maryland (9-3, 1-1 ACC) isn’t a serious ACC contender. There are still plenty of weaker teams the Terps can beat, but a loss that shatters their confidence could send them reeling.

Maryland might be able to shrug off the North Carolina loss as just a bad day. However, two whippings in four days would provide another example of Maryland’s inability to match up against top teams.

“It’s a long year,” forward Nik Caner-Medley said. “When you play against a team that good on their homecourt, you have to do a lot of things right. It got ugly. I think this team has had ups and downs, and part of being a mature team is dealing with adversity. We feel we’re a good team, too, but we need to do certain things better.”

The Terps have had a penchant for springing upsets. With virtually the same roster last year, Maryland beat No.1 Florida on the road in the regular season and swept through the ACC tournament. An upset tomorrow would provide a spark in its drive for a 12th straight NCAA tournament bid.

“Some of the top teams have their games really going,” guard John Gilchrist said. “We haven’t found ours yet against a big team. We’re still searching. … The only way we can beat a team the caliber of Wake Forest and North Carolina is to put our best game out there.”

It starts up front. Forward Ekene Ibekwe has been forced to go against much bigger centers. North Carolina’s Sean May was 50 pounds heavier than Ibekwe, who fouled out with 8:35 remaining with just three points and two rebounds. The Terps tried to help Ibekwe with forwards Travis Garrison and James Gist, but opponents with two standout big men don’t allow Maryland to help as much.

Ibekwe and Garrison have been erratic. They’re capable of big games but also can disappear. Ibekwe delivered 21 points and 12 rebounds against Wisconsin and 13 points vs. Florida State before fouling out but only has scored 24 points over the last four games. Garrison has improved his scoring since managing only four points against Florida State before fouling out with nine minutes left. He has three double-digit efforts in four games, and his rebounding has improved, but the Terps still want Garrison to be more aggressive around the rim.

Caner-Medley also is playing better this year. He has scored at least 10 points in five straight games while averaging 5.4 rebounds. He has been scrappy on defense and had three steals against North Carolina. The downside is he has hit just three of 20 3-pointers over the last six games.

Maryland’s backcourt gets most of the attention because the ACC is heavy in standout guards this season. Certainly, Gilchrist (16.5 points) is matching expectations with seven straight double-digit scoring games. Guard Chris McCray has become an excellent defensive player but has converted just six of 25 3-pointers in the last seven games and no more than two in any game this season. Maryland still hasn’t found a replacement for sharpshooter Drew Nicholas, whose college career ended in 2003.

The bench has earned mixed reviews. Gist, a freshman forward, has shown signs of becoming the Terps’ next breakout star, while guard D.J. Strawberry’s defense has been outstanding. However, guard Mike Jones has been disappointing despite his decisive 3-pointer in an overtime win against Florida State. Center Will Bowers has improved, but May danced around him enough during the Tar Heels’ victory to show he still isn’t capable of defending top opponents.

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