- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

Maryland coach Gary Williams senses a trap.

The No.12 Terrapins (11-4, 4-1) are atop the ACC as they visit Clemson today after beating rivals Duke and North Carolina in the past week. Clemson figures to be an easy victory considering Maryland has taken nine straight from the Tigers (11-3, 1-3), including four at Littlejohn Coliseum. That's what worries Williams.

"We have to want to win this game as bad as we did Duke and North Carolina," he said yesterday. "This is the third of four on the road the toughest stretch of our schedule. We've been successful so far. Is it enough success that whatever happens at Clemson happens? If you feel that way, then we'll probably lose the game. You have to feel this is as important."

Maryland is 7-1 since losing to three ranked teams in a 4-3 start. Yet Williams knows how quickly the balanced league can devour visitors given that home teams have lost only four games this season. Williams doesn't want to blow hard-won momentum against a Clemson team that has played two straight one-point games.

"You know how fragile that is," he said. "If we lose to Clemson, we have all those doubts, too. That's part of the deal with coaching. You have to overcome those doubts because they're going to be there at certain points of the season. We had doubts last year at times. We lost to Arizona and thought maybe we weren't as good as we thought we were. You always have to overcome doubts."

There were doubts after the Terps lost at Wake Forest 81-72 on Jan.15. Senior point guard Steve Blake led a meeting of players on the return flight, determined that the team not collapse during the harsh stretch against Duke, North Carolina and Clemson. Maryland could have slipped from the Top 25 by losing to Duke. Instead, a victory against Clemson might return Maryland to the top 10 next week.

Williams realized a senior-only starting lineup was needed after freshmen forwards Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison played poorly at Wake Forest. Caner-Medley has performed well off the bench since, while seniors Tahj Holden and Calvin McCall have blossomed as starters. Blake was the only returning starter among the seniors, and the others needed half the season to jell despite past seasons together.

"It was different for them," Blake said, "but we've been playing together for awhile, so it wasn't too much of a transition."

Clemson coach Larry Shyatt said Maryland's experience has proven the difference in the early season.

"There's no question Maryland has that ring about them this year," he said. "What makes it more challenging for teams they face is, along with Duke, their freshmen can train and compete with guys that have won it all. That really separates the two."

Maryland's recent run has been fueled by the inside play of center Ryan Randle (14.1 points, 8.4 rebounds) and forwards Jamar Smith (5.5, 4.4) and Holden (7.9, 3.8). Duke and North Carolina were outmatched underneath, but Clemson should provide a stronger test with center Sharrod Ford (10.2, 7.6) and forwards Ray Henderson (8.1, 6.8) and Chris Hobbs (8.1, 5.7). Still, Maryland will keep working inside early until Clemson proves it can stop the Terps.

"Everything develops around the big man," Randle said. "Tahj, Jamar and I have become targets. If their big men can't stop one of us, then we just have to keep giving one of us the ball until they do."

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