- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

It was late in the first half last night when Maryland point guard Eric Hayes dumped a pass to forward Ekene Ibekwe, who in one motion caught the ball and kicked it out to Mike Jones, who drilled an open 3-pointer.

Really, it was an elegant play, beautiful in both its simplicity and its execution. Good teams convert such chances all the time, to the point they become routine.

A play that displayed such understanding of the game was rare for Maryland last season, a once-promising year for the Terrapins that devolved into a second straight NIT berth.

Its presence in only the second game of the season — an 81-63 victory over Vermont before a student-dominated crowd of 7,318 at Comcast Center — could be a sign a similar fate does not await this year’s team.

“That was probably the best play we ran,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “That’s what you’re looking for. You want to expand the number of good plays you have in a game.”

Mike Jones and D.J. Strawberry both scored 19 points for Maryland (2-0), which advanced to play at Madison Square Garden in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

The Terps will play the winner of the tournament’s New York regional, which includes St. John’s, Loyola (Md.), Navy and North Florida and will be played this weekend at St. John’s. Michigan State and Texas are the regional hosts in the other half of the bracket.

“It’s definitely exciting to go play at the Garden with all the tradition there and all the history there,” said Strawberry, who was named the MVP of the College Park regional. “I’m going to be excited, but we have to take care of business. We have a game against Florida A&M; [on Sunday] and then go to the Garden, and it’s about business. It’s not about sightseeing or anything.”

The Terps spoiled the homecoming of Vermont coach Mike Lonergan, who won a Division III title at Catholic and spent a season under Williams as an assistant at Maryland. Matt Hahn, one of the Catamounts’ assistants, played for the Terps from 1996 to 2000.

Instead, Vermont (1-1) left College Park with a much-needed split and some national television exposure, a rarity for a school in the America East.

Maryland needed the two victories, both to avoid an embarrassing nonconference home loss and to ensure a pair of games in New York likely to prove vastly more helpful to the Terps’ RPI than two victories at Comcast over teams from one-bid leagues.

The Catamounts are anything but pushovers and proved it by sticking close to the Terps for much of the first half. However, Vermont could not contain Jones, the finish to Ibekwe’s slick passing simply part of his outburst moments before the break.

Vermont was within 32-27 before Jones deposited jumpers on consecutive possessions to bump the lead to nine. He started the second half with a flourish as well, putting back Ibekwe’s flailing attempt at a one-handed slam before making a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 45-28. The Catamounts never cobbled together a sustained run after that and trailed by as many as 24.

“It definitely feels good being a shooter, especially after you struggle a couple games, finally one game you just burst out and hit shots you normally hit,” said Jones, who finished 8-for-15 from the field and added five assists and four rebounds.

The Terps again demonstrated improved defense a night after forcing Hampton into 25 turnovers in the season opener. Vermont fumbled away possession 21 times, including 14 times in the first half as Maryland opened a lead that nearly reached double figures.

Just as welcome was another night of averting disaster on the perimeter. The Catamounts were an anemic 2-for-16 on their 3-point attempts, which stalled any chance of a comeback. It was another hint of smarter play from the Terps, who have shown promise in their first two tests of the season.

“I like the way our team is developing,” Williams said. “Right now we’re picking each other up. When one guy is not playing particularly well in a game, it seems like somebody else steps up, and that’s always a good sign for the future.”

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