- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

Everything went right for Maryland in the first month of the basketball season, from its Coaches vs. Cancer Classic title to a victory at Illinois on Tuesday, and so much was because of how the Terrapins reinvented their style of play in the offseason.

Their passing was crisper, their defense tighter, their enjoyment of the game evident to all.

So when the Terps reverted to their old ways — lousy defense, uninspired passing and overall play with more than a hint of ennui — in last night’s 81-74 loss to Notre Dame in the BB&T; Classic at Verizon Center, it was familiar for all the wrong reasons and surprising for all the right ones.

“It’s frustrating because if we played defense, we’d [be] 9-0 today,” guard D.J. Strawberry said. “Even though we were getting open shots, we weren’t making them. We weren’t playing any defense. It’s frustrating because we had a chance to be great right now.”

Instead, the No. 23 Terps (8-1) will have to settle for simply being good at this juncture. It is still an upgrade from what the program fielded the last two seasons, when the records (both 19-13) were solid but the product was rarely if ever aesthetically pleasing.

That changed last month as the Terps embraced an intelligent approach that eluded them last night. Gone was the inspired play of the victory at Illinois, replaced instead by lethargy evident from the opening tip.

“We’re 8-1 and there’s not many teams in the country with a better record, but you’d like to be 9-0,” coach Gary Williams said. “You shouldn’t have to go through this. You should be able to handle the Illinois thing and come in and play the same way against Notre Dame. Not that you’d win, but you should be able to play with the same intensity level, and we didn’t do that tonight.”

The Terps’ third straight loss in the BB&T; — before a crowd of 16,924, the largest at the event in eight years — was cemented by a galling disregard for defense against the Fighting Irish (6-1), who seemed energized when Ekene Ibekwe was called for a technical foul for shouting after blocking Russell Carter’s shot from behind with 14:03 left.

Maryland led 42-34 at that point and seemed in control, but Notre Dame guard Kyle McAlarney’s shooting and the Terps’ inability to defend the lane from easy drives to the basket soon changed the tone. The Irish gradually eroded the Terps’ lead and tied it on Tory Jackson’s layup with 10:03 remaining.

McAlarney (game-high 18 points) delivered an open 3-pointer and drove the lane unimpeded for a layup on consecutive possessions to make it 54-49, then added another 3-pointer that prompted the irate Williams to call a timeout. His message went unheeded, and the Irish’s Colin Falls hit a 3-pointer with 7:48 remaining to bump the lead to 60-49 and cap an 18-2 run.

Notre Dame made 11 straight shots at one point, an indictment of a virtually nonexistent defensive performance in the second half.

“It’s just a crummy night,” Maryland forward Bambale Osby said. “You can say it was this reason or that reason. We just didn’t come ready to play — collectively. … For us to come out and give that effort, it’s surprising.”

The Terps’ perimeter predicament was not confined to one end of the floor. Guard Mike Jones’ streak of making at least one field goal was snapped at 27 games, and freshman Greivis Vasquez struggled to a 4-for-15 night after a charismatic 17-point performance at Illinois.

Then there was the Terps’ season-low 11 assists, a turnaround for a team that has built its offensive identity around sharing the ball. Put together, the woes could be a sign the Terps might not be as good as their 8-0 start, or they merely could be an inevitable blip most teams eventually encounter.

Either way, it was an unwanted lesson for a team that believed it had left such unsightly outings in the past.

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