- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Maryland coach Gary Williams assured reporters yesterday his team endured an “interesting” practice Monday, an intriguing euphemism to employ to describe a workout less than 24 hours after a lackluster 81-74 loss to Notre Dame in the BB&T; Classic.

Monday was no doubt a high-decibel afternoon for Williams, who was anything but thrilled to learn of a previously concealed side of a team that thrived in the first month of the season.

It was surprising because the Terrapins (8-1) rallied past Illinois on the road five days earlier while playing without starting forward Ekene Ibekwe, played tight defense in their first eight games and fluidly passed the ball while jumping to their best start in eight years.

The shock of the loss has since given way to a reality check: The No. 23 Terps, who play host to Fordham (4-2) tonight at Comcast Center, cannot afford shaky efforts against respectable teams and expect to escape unscathed.

“We’re eight up with 16 minutes left — yeah, I think we were stunned,” Williams said yesterday. “It just shows you have to play for 40 minutes. I thought there were a couple times in the first half we could have stretched it out, and we didn’t do it. Nowadays in men’s college basketball, with the depth of the field, you’d better be ready to play every night.”

Maryland’s players, who were unavailable to speak with the media yesterday, were still processing their first defeat less than an hour after walking off the Verizon Center court Sunday. The matador defense in the lane, the absence of perimeter defense coverage and the inability to withstand the Fighting Irish physically were traits unseen throughout the regular season.

It would have been an utterly forgettable performance if not for the evident sting in the morose locker room, a misery that probably remained with the Terps during the bus ride back to College Park.

“We didn’t do what got us here for eight games,” guard D.J. Strawberry said after the loss. “We didn’t do that. It’s not learning. It’s just playing and going out and doing the things that got us here.”

Indeed, defense was the Terps’ priority from the start of practice in mid-October. When Maryland struggled to dispatch a Division II team in its exhibition opener, it was because of lousy defense. As Maryland rolled up victories over Michigan State, Illinois and others, Williams and players frequently credited the team’s defensive performance.

And when the Terps allowed Notre Dame to make 56 percent of its shots in the second half, it was clear where the onus for the loss — and what would be emphasized in its aftermath — would land.

“If you’re not ready to play, you can still make some shots and look OK offensively. Even though you’re not running good offenses, you’re hot that day,” Williams said. “Defensively, there’s no way around faking defense. You can’t do that. You have to be ready to play. To me, that’s where it showed up the most.”

The loss might also reinforce a trend Williams has tried to emphasize to the Terps in the last few weeks. He’s pointed out newspaper clippings and mentioned unexpected scores, which have been plentiful in the first month of the season.

All of it leads to an overarching conclusion, one especially relevant to the Terps: In a year in which Wichita State and Butler already have climbed into the top 15 and close calls for ranked teams are even more common than outright upsets, sloppy play frequently will be punished with a defeat.

“You play a good team, they’ll make you pay,” Williams said. “If you don’t play a good team, you get away with it, but somewhere down the line you’ll pay for that. That was just a one-game deal. We weren’t lulled into thinking we were better than we were. We found out pretty quick how hard we have to work.”

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