- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Maryland coach Gary Williams remembers driving a team van across town during rush hour to reach home games. The Army gym at Arlington’s Fort Myer wasn’t heated, the locker room doubled as a weight facility and guards once nearly didn’t allow the team through the gate.

It has been 26 years since Williams hauled towels and water during his first head college job at American University. If it was one of the harder stops of his career and paid him the least money, it also featured one of the more gratifying results: A group of Division I castoffs went undefeated in the East Coast Conference to reach the NIT during Williams’ third season.

The Eagles were 72-42 with two postseason trips in four years before Williams left for Boston College.

“You appreciate anything that happens to you after that,” Williams said. “You don’t realize it at the time, but it was a great training ground.”

The No. 24 Terrapins play host to AU tonight at Comcast Center, where the heat is turned on, the weight room is on a different concourse and stands are filled with more than soldiers waiting to use the gym.

Maryland (6-2) should handle AU (5-2), but Williams wants the Terps to replicate the same work ethic that once fueled the Eagles. With pending ACC play promising plenty of counterpunching, the Terps first need to sweep the coming three-game nonconference stretch to pad their win total. Beating AU may not be as sexy as upsetting Duke, but it’s still required to reach the NCAA tournament.

“You can’t give any away if you want to make the NCAA tournament now,” Williams said.

After surviving Florida State 90-88 in overtime to win its ACC opener Sunday, Maryland has a conference respite until it travels to North Carolina on Jan.8. The Terps will use AU, Liberty (Tuesday) and Mount St. Mary’s (Jan.4) for fine-tuning their inside offense while getting one last look at reserves before finalizing their rotation.

Guard D.J. Strawberry and forward James Gist are the first two off the bench. Center Will Bowers and guard Mike Jones must prove deserving of minutes over the next three games. Bowers grabbed five rebounds with two blocks against Florida State after two frontcourt players fouled out, and Jones’ 3-pointer gave Maryland its final lead.

“They came through, and that means a lot to the starters,” Williams said. “It takes a little mental pressure off them where they have to really play well or else we can’t win. We had some starters that didn’t play well, and we still won an ACC game. That’s a good sign that our bench is capable of playing in big games and getting by sometimes when we’re not playing our best basketball.”

Bowers hasn’t transferred solid practices into good game efforts too often. However, the sophomore has improved this season, and the recent departure of center Hassan Fofana will give him more minutes. Bowers isn’t a consistent scorer, but he can play defense.

“With Will, it’s always been a matter of confidence,” Williams said. “A game like that will help him.”

The same confidence gap applies to Jones, whose 3-point shooting hasn’t always fulfilled expectations after he arrived last year as a Boston prep phenom. After converting only one of nine against North Carolina Asheville on Dec.12, Jones’ game-breaker swished through the net against Florida State.

“That was a big shot for Mike,” Williams said. “Now he’ll get some playing time in the next game because of the shot. It was a very big shot, the biggest shot of the year so far for us.”

Said Jones: “I tend to ponder on it for a while, and eventually the confidence is there and then things happen the next game.”

Notes: — Forward Darien Henry will miss three to four weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery yesterday. Forward Mike Grinnon is out at least one game following oral surgery on a fractured tooth. … The Terps added walk-on sophomore forward Gini Chukura (6-foot-5, 215 pounds). Chukura is a former teammate of forward James Gist at Wheaton’s Good Counsel High School. … Forward Travis Garrison has been playing despite suspected nerve damage in his right elbow. … Maryland will collect toys before the game for local youth.

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