Little has come easy for Maryland’s basketball team since it resumed conference play earlier this month.
Not on offense. Not on defense. Not in its rebounding. Not in its shooting.
So it was mildly unexpected to see D.J. Strawberry bellowing so vehemently at halfcourt in the aftermath of a James Gist dunk and Greivis Vasquez imploring further crowd participation so earnestly with better than 25 minutes to go.
But there they were, unleashing the emotions pent up by a miserable two-game road swing as often as they could. And Maryland had plenty of opportunities as it rolled to an 80-65 victory over Georgia Tech while displaying the same overall effort it had in Sunday’s loss at Virginia Tech.
For a night, anyway, the Terrapins (16-5, 2-4 ACC) regained their early season swagger as James Gist scored a career-high 26 points and Eric Hayes added a career-best 12 points and seven assists against the Yellow Jackets (13-6, 2-4).
“To get this win tonight was very important for us, but at the same time it wasn’t life or death,” coach Gary Williams said. “If it was life or death, we couldn’t have played and we would have been too tight. Our message after the Virginia Tech game [Sunday] was to play like that the rest of the year, so that’s what we did tonight.”
It was a cathartic night for the Terps, who dug themselves an unpleasant 1-4 hole in conference play that only six previous ACC teams have overcome to reach the NCAA tournament. Maryland was bedeviled by an occasionally invisible defense in a loss at Virginia last week, then by a stagnant offense in an overtime setback at Virginia Tech.
Neither was a problem against Georgia Tech, which fell behind by as many as 20 in the first half, committed 19 turnovers and shot 1-for-17 from the 3-point line as it was dissected by a bunch that looked much more like the group that started 8-0 than the one that had lost three of four before last night.
More importantly, the Terps protected their homecourt in their lone game at Comcast sandwiched between four conference road trips.
“We haven’t had one of these games in a while where everybody played well and we played as a team,” Strawberry said. “Tonight we were finishing the ball and playing with a lot of emotion. I just told everybody before the game just play how we were playing at the beginning of the season when we were having fun. Everybody for some reason just was playing like we didn’t like each other.
The Yellow Jackets started only one guard, which placed a great onus on Maryland to establish an inside presence quickly. Gist did so even as he battled foul trouble at different points.
Gist was especially active in the first half, sinking an array of shots while physically punishing the Yellow Jackets. The basket that set off celebrations from Strawberry and Vasquez — Gist’s authoritative dunk over D’Andre Bell’s feeble foul — was a particularly revealing moment, and another Gist dunk moments later pushed Maryland ahead 39-19.
Gist didn’t do much else for the next 15 minutes because of foul trouble but returned with about 10 minutes left. He quickly muscled his way to a pair of routine baskets to set his career high, then dropped a 16-footer to extend the edge to 66-48.
“It’s been there. It just hasn’t been on like that,” Gist said of his offense, though he might as well have been describing the Terps as well.
Vasquez’s defense on Georgia Tech guard Javaris Crittenton was also vital. Both freshmen are 6-foot-5, and Crittenton seemed flustered by Vasquez’s badgering on his way to a career-low five points.