- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

CLEMSON, S.C. — Greivis Vasquez struggled in practice for two days, unable to deliver the crisp, stealthy passes Maryland knew it could exploit at Clemson.

The frustration built, his coaches understandably vexed at the freshman’s helplessness on a basic play.

But like so many other times this season, Vasquez shrugged off some mistakes to produce a superlative performance at a critical time — in this case, a 15-point, 11-assist, five-steal outing as the Terrapins outlasted Clemson 82-66 yesterday at Littlejohn Coliseum.

D.J. Strawberry scored 22 points, and Vasquez had a hand in half of Maryland’s 32 field goals as the pair sliced up the fading Tigers, allowing the Terps to reach both the .500 mark in ACC play and 20 wins for the season.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘I have to play good because we need this win,’ ” Vasquez said. “We’re talking about the backdoors because they overplay too much. I couldn’t hit any of those backdoors at practice at all. Coach got mad at me most of the time.

“I told myself, ‘I have to hit it today. We have to win.’ ”

The Terps (20-7, 6-6 ACC) indeed emerged with a victory, their third straight after a month-long stretch that kindly could be described as erratic. But in consecutive victories over Duke, N.C. State and Clemson, the Terps have displayed the consistency ultimately necessary for postseason success.

Once 2-5 in the conference — a hole only four teams have hauled themselves from to earn an NCAA tournament berth — Maryland arrived at a victory plateau that always has led to an NCAA bid for ACC teams since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.

“You play for that all year, and it comes in different stages,” coach Gary Williams said of his suddenly predictable bunch. “Sometimes it never comes. We’ve been doing basically the same things the last three games.”

Maryland’s improvement — smart shot selection (56.1 percent from the field), solid rebounding (33-31 edge on the glass) and perpetual harassment (11 steals) — was evident for all but about a 10-minute stretch.

But what was once a 55-43 lead was whittled to 59-58 when Clemson’s Vernon Hamilton made a fast-break layup, and the Tigers (19-7, 5-7) seemed poised to complete the comeback.

Clemson never nosed ahead but remained bothersome and pulled within 66-63 on Cliff Hammonds’ 3-pointer with 5:02 left. Strawberry then hit two free throws and scored on a backdoor cut after Vasquez’s slick high-post pass to ignite a 12-0 run.

The play encapsulated the day for Vasquez, whose best games this season came in critical victories at Illinois and against Duke. He can add yesterday to his list, an outing that featured skillful court vision, occasional floor-slapping, disruption of Clemson’s passing lanes and plenty of jeers from the crowd.

“He was just putting the pass right on point, and he was getting me open and getting a lot of our other teammates open,” Strawberry said.

Both Strawberry and Vasquez penetrated frequently, taking pressure off Maryland’s forwards when they began their methodical journey into foul trouble. It was Strawberry’s third straight standout performance, a product perhaps of savvy placidity overcoming a clamoring to take over ordinary stretches of a game.

The senior’s teammates seemed to follow his lead, avoiding a meltdown during the Tigers’ push. Maryland might have lost yesterday’s game a month ago, a prospect Strawberry conceded as he relished the Terps’ increasingly bright march to March.

“I feel we have our swagger back,” Strawberry said. “We’re playing with a little swagger, a little chip on our shoulder. We’re just going out and believing we can win. When Clemson made their run, we didn’t panic. We just continued to do what we were doing the whole game.”

For the last three games, really. Though it took only eight days to scratch back to 6-6 in the ACC, it felt like far more. Another three-in-eight stretch awaits Maryland — home games against Florida State and North Carolina and a return trip to Duke starting Wednesday.

It has the potential to drag the Terps back into the middle-of-the-pack morass or propel them further ahead as the regular season winds down. If the newfound consistency remains, the latter could continue to come to fruition.

“It’s a lot of work,” Williams said. “We have to be tough now. We have to be mature and understand we haven’t reached our goal yet. That wasn’t out goal, to be 6-6 in the league. … We have to get as many as we can.”

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