- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2006

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With a starter out for the first time all season, it only made sense the Maryland basketball team would turn to sixth man Greivis Vasquez.

Nevermind that the Terrapins were playing the team with the nation’s longest nonconference home winning streak, that they frittered away a 15-point lead in the first half or that Vasquez still can count his career college games on two hands with both thumbs to spare.

The acrobatic freshman authored his most impressive outing of the Terps’ scorching opening month, scoring 15 of his 17 points in the second half as No. 23 Maryland downed Illinois 72-66 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge before 16,618 at frenzied Assembly Hall.

“I’m not afraid,” Vasquez said. “Coming so far from Venezuela, I didn’t come here just to sit on the bench. I came here to play.”

So did junior college transfer Bambale Osby, who drew his first start at Maryland while forward Ekene Ibekwe sat with a sprained left ankle. Osby scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Mike Jones added 19 points as the Terps (8-0) finished November with a flourish and continued their best start in eight years.

It was just another in a string of eye-opening performances this month for Maryland, the type nowhere to be seen as the Terps stumbled to consecutive NIT appearances the last two seasons.

“We’ve worked hard since last April to get this turned around, and this is a big win for us,” coach Gary Williams said.

It started with Vasquez, the whirling wonder whose reckless play can inspire wonder and aggravation, sometimes within seconds of each other.

He summoned much more of the latter from teammates and Williams after the Terps found themselves down 48-43 after a lull of more than 20 minutes. He came out of a timeout and drilled a 3-pointer, then converted a 3-point play the next time down the floor.

He added another basket a few minutes later to pull Maryland within one, and Illinois’ opportunity to put the game away — and easily protect its 51-game nonconference home winning streak — had evaporated.

“Their freshman just kicked our butt for about two minutes,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.

The Illini (7-1) soon lost the lead but didn’t let the Terps stray too far. It was only after Vasquez made two free throws that Maryland finally pushed it to a two-possession game, but even that was countered a few moments later.

Vasquez, though, delivered the coup de grace with a savvy play that seemed to come naturally. After James Gist’s turnover, Vasquez quickly ascertained Rich McBride would try to pass to Chester Frazier. Vasquez stepped in and rolled in for a layup, a basket that all but sealed the game.

“He was crazy, wasn’t he?” Osby asked in amazement. “He was playing basketball. His energy, it’s just magnetic. It just hits you.”

It was a much-needed lift on a night Ibekwe, the Terps’ leading rebounder, couldn’t play. It forced both Osby and Will Bowers into more pronounced roles, and Gist (11 points) avoided foul trouble and played a career-high 37 minutes.

Maryland was poised to put away the slow-starting Illini rather quickly, building a 29-14 lead through a flurry of inside baskets and Jones’ outside shooting.

Illinois whittled its way back in, bringing its increasingly rowdy fans along for ride in the 43-year-old barn.

“It was a real crazy environment,” said Gist, one of several Terps players impressed with the atmosphere. “It’s the Fighting Illini, and they were fighting.”

Williams took a more creative approach to his lineup, trotting out a four-guard set during brief stretches in the middle of both halves. The Terps suffered a 44-34 rebounding deficit with Ibekwe absent, and the Illini held D.J. Strawberry to a season-low seven points.

It hardly mattered.

“Just because one person’s out doesn’t mean it’s OK to lose games,” Strawberry said. “We knew people had to step up tonight, and we knew everybody was going to have to play their game.”

That included Vasquez, who angered himself with an airball on a 3-point attempt late in the first half.

His electric play in the second half reflected just how clever Maryland was as it overcame some of its foibles to shoot 13-for-18 after the break.

The freshman’s performance elicited only praise in the aftermath of the Terps’ latest victory, even some from his coach, a man with a deep knowledge of the sport’s past but not one to make historical allusions without reason.

“I told him you’re going to be our John Havlicek, and then he said, ‘Who’s John Havlicek?’ and then I realized how old I was when I said that to him,” Williams said. “I said he’s the greatest sixth man of all time, and he said ‘Well, that’s good.’ He likes that.”

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