- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A team desperately seeking answers just more than a week ago might have found an amazingly simple one in the final week of the season.

Maryland just has to hope its sudden defensive renaissance continues in the ACC tournament when it faces Georgia Tech tonight in a first-round game at Greensboro Coliseum.

The sixth-seeded Terrapins (18-11, 8-8 ACC) bolstered their defense in wins against Miami and Virginia to close the regular season, finally heeding coach Gary Williams’ pleas to shut down an opponent rather than relying on their own hot shooting to win games.

“It’s hard work, basically,” senior forward Travis Garrison said. “Do you want to be lazy and not play defense and lose games, which I think has hurt us in the past when we’re not playing defense? When we play hard and play defense, you guys see what happens. Scoring is not really a problem for us. It’s the defensive end. If we go back and forth the whole game, that doesn’t lead to anything.”

The overdue discovery came just in time for the Terps, who have resuscitated their NCAA tournament hopes heading into their meeting with the 11th-seeded Yellow Jackets (11-16, 4-12). Maryland’s defensive woes were apparent from its first game, when it surrendered 85 points to Fairleigh Dickinson.

The problems continued game after game, week after week as the Terps rolled through their nonconference schedule. Williams and players often mentioned defense after blowout wins, but the comments began sounding like lip service when the Terps would come out in their next game and have trouble stopping anyone.

“I think people knew that, but it just wasn’t a point of emphasis,” junior guard D.J. Strawberry said. “It just wasn’t a main point. Everyone knew we had to play defense, but we were going to outscore everybody. We lucked up and outscored some teams and played terrible defense and still won.”

That began to change when the Terps entered ACC play, and the loss of their best on-ball defender (Chris McCray) to academic ineligibility in late January exacerbated the problem. During one stretch, Maryland surrendered at least nine 3-pointers in 11 of 13 games.

“We’ve had some different things we had to work on,” Williams said. “You don’t like any distractions outside of basketball, and that can create situations where it takes you longer to get where you want to go.”

The Terps might have arrived there when they held Miami and Virginia — teams with dynamic backcourts — to seven 3-pointers apiece. Neither opponent shot better than 40 percent, though Virginia’s J.R. Reynolds did scorch the Terps for 30 points Sunday.

The improvement hasn’t been confined to the guards. The Terps’ shot blockers have emerged down the stretch, swatting 25 shots in the last three games to deny open layups to guards who attempt to penetrate into the paint.

“There’s been occasions where we picked it up on defense and offense has been that much easier,” said guard Mike Jones, who, along with reserves Sterling Ledbetter and Parrish Brown, has played more on the perimeter since McCray’s departure.

A continued reliance on defense is a necessity for Maryland to make an extended run this weekend. There are varying opinions on what the Terps must do to reach the NCAA tournament and how much other games across the country can affect their postseason hopes.

Realistically, most of those discussions won’t matter much if the Terps lose tonight.

“I think the big thing our players have done a good job with starting last week was to realize that the only thing we can control is who we play,” Williams said yesterday after the Terps’ practice sessions at UNC Greensboro and at the coliseum. “So if Syracuse beats Cincinnati on a last-second shot when the guy might have walked, we can’t do anything about that. But we have a game [tonight]. We can do something about.”

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