- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

College Park’s biggest party of the year produced the desired result.

More importantly, it reasserted Maryland as an NCAA tournament contender.

The Terrapins darted to a huge early lead, then fended off No. 16 Duke for a much-needed 72-60 victory yesterday at Comcast Center, which played host to a sellout crowd that roared throughout the day and saved one of its loudest ovations for forwards James Gist and Bambale Osby as they gleefully bounded toward the student section after the buzzer.

It was for the best that only a smattering of students rushed the floor, but it remained a significant victory for Maryland (18-7, 4-6 ACC). Even though the Blue Devils (18-7, 5-6) have lost four straight, their struggles couldn’t hide arguably Maryland’s best performance since November.

“We just wanted to get back to how we were playing at the beginning of the season when were 8-0,” guard D.J. Strawberry said. “I told everybody we were 8-0, and we have seven games left. Why can’t we go 7-0 these last seven games?”

Maryland thrived at the start with cerebral, controlled badgering that wisely fell short of a fullcourt press on defense and an efficient offense capable of shredding the interior for easy baskets at the other end.

In between, the Terps thrived at turning long rebounds into transition baskets.

Greivis Vasquez scored 18 points, and Gist added 16 points and 10 rebounds for Maryland.

“This is a team that has a lot of good qualities. I’ve been saying that all year,” coach Gary Williams said. “We’ve worked hard all year. We have 18 wins now, and we’re continuing to work at the home stretch. We are not in disarray. You don’t beat the teams we’ve beaten already this year and are in disarray. Disarray is losing seasons, and we haven’t had one of them around here in a long time.”

Still, there was little question Maryland needed an impressive result after Tuesday’s home loss to Virginia. The Terps’ ennui at times that night was glaring for a group supposedly dead-set against making a third straight trip to the NIT.

The response began in practice, which Williams described as more competitive than usual at this juncture of the season. And it continued well into the first half for the Terps, who received timely boosts from each of their veterans.

“When you’re 3-6 in the league and you went from earlier in the year being a good seed and now they’re talking about you not even being in the NCAA tournament, it’s kind of a reality check for you,” senior center Will Bowers said. “If the NCAA tournament was today, I don’t know where we’d be at, but if we can get a couple more ACC wins it would really help us out.”

A victory over Duke — even a Duke team not quite at the level of a decade’s worth of its immediate predecessors — should be especially useful. The Blue Devils, so often the ones to deliver demoralizing early flurries against opponents, found themselves unable to get shots off against a Maryland team determined to apply pressure without overextending itself.

Buoyed by Vasquez’s bold shot-making, Gist’s dogged inside play and Bowers’ ultra-active four-minute stint, the Terps darted to a 29-9 lead punctuated by Strawberry’s long drive and dunk off a long rebound.

“They played with amazing energy, especially at the start of the game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Our team hasn’t experienced that level of energy, and it knocked us back to where we were down 20 points.”

Duke trailed 40-28 at halftime and tried to draw closer several times in the second half only to be met with a Maryland basket. The Blue Devils finally appeared poised for an extended rally when they twice pulled within six, but the Terps’ veterans soon stifled Duke.

Ekene Ibekwe’s driving layup and Gist’s 13-footer fell, and Jones bumped the lead into double figures for good with a spin off a screen to make it 64-54. Jones drilled a jumper off an inbounds pass a minute later, and the Terps went into the final television timeout after Ibekwe turned Strawberry’s slick entry pass into a one-handed jam.

It was an impressive finish but made possible only because of a strong start.

“We don’t have any choice. We have to keep playing hard,” Vasquez said. “We did it from the beginning. We just have to come out and jump-start [things] and play hard.”

Maryland barely can afford to relent with trips to N.C. State and Clemson looming this week. But perhaps there is a chance this victory will prove different than the Terps’ last three, which were followed by losses rather than sustained success.

“That was a players’ win,” Williams said. “… Everybody kept asking the players and myself what was wrong, and we just went into practice every day trying to prove there’s nothing wrong. That was the motivation to play and play well today, and we did.”

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