- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

If an overtime loss last week proved Maryland is truly a top-10 team, a tournament sweep in December could drop hints that the Terrapins will play deep into March again. Maryland meets Notre Dame today in the BB&T; Classic at MCI Center, with the winner facing the victor between No.2 Texas and George Washington tomorrow.

After blowing a late lead in an 80-74 overtime loss to No.10 Indiana on Tuesday, the No.9 Terps' challenging December schedule including a date with No.8 Florida on Dec.14 should indicate whether the defending national champions can truly compete for a third straight Final Four.

"Anybody that doubted us being top-10, we are that good," guard Drew Nicholas said. "If we can go out there and give it a little more effort than we did against Indiana, I think we're going to be fine for the rest of the season."

But shrugging off the Indiana loss after three opening blowouts wasn't easy. Indiana's 39 free throws to Maryland's 14 still bothered Terps coach Gary Williams yesterday, an obvious reflection on playing on a "neutral" court at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

"Our intensity was pretty good, especially after a loss like that," Nicholas said of practice Thursday. "I don't think it will be that hard. I remember on the plane ride coming home, I said to myself, 'I can't wait until Saturday.'"

Maryland looks to bolster its frontcourt play after a continued low-scoring run by forward Tahj Holden, who managed only six points in 16 minutes against Indiana before fouling out with 13 minutes remaining. Holden is averaging four points in the 3-1 start. Williams seems increasingly impatient with Holden's slow start after saying the senior typically plays better in January.

"He's been a slow starter every year," Williams said. "He just seems to play better as you get into the ACC season. But we need him now. We don't have that luxury this year in terms of experience to go through this again. I thought Tahj played better [against Indiana] than he has."

Instead, center Ryan Randle, with a career-best 20 points and 16 rebounds against Indiana, has emerged as the inside force. If the Terps' offense flows through the post, Randle is the conduit.

"It takes time. We're starting to see how to get the ball inside," Williams said. "With Ryan's play, that's a good option."

Maryland also needs a better effort from Nicholas, who converted only three of 11 shots in a career-high 42 minutes for a season-low 12 points.

"Eleven shots isn't enough for me," he said. "I have to step up and be more of a [factor] in those situations."

Nicholas' turnover with 10 seconds remaining was the pivotal play. Maryland led 68-67 and the miscue proved costly.

"We probably would have won the game if I had not taken my eye off the ball for a split second," Nicholas said. "If we're in one of those situations [again], I'll make sure I catch the ball. You learn to move on."

The halfcourt offense should become more patient than against Indiana after committing 16 turnovers to Indiana's four. The Terps may look for more inside chances after hitting only four of 17 3-pointers.

"We were a little impatient at times, especially when we had the lead a couple times," Williams said.

The BB&T features three of the nation's leading point guards, with Maryland's Steve Blake facing Notre Dame's Chris Thomas. T.J. Ford of Texas led the country in assists last season, with Blake second and Thomas fifth.

"The message this weekend is there hasn't been a better four-team tournament in-season in terms of the point guard play," Williams said. "It's a great thing for the fans to see three of the premier point guards in the country."

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