WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The grousing grew louder when Maryland stumbled to its fourth loss in six games Tuesday. When would the Terrapins win on the road again? When would they shake off a three-week lull that threatened to ruin their season? When would the offense and defense materialize at the same time.
Greivis Vasquez thinks the Terps might provided all the necessary answers with a 79-72 victory over Wake Forest last night.
“We have to be ready every night and we’ll be OK,” Vasquez said. “We’re going to go the tournament if we’re ready every night, I’ll guarantee you that. No matter how many people are going to criticize us, I believe in my team and we are good. We’re going to make it to the tournament as long as we are together and play together like we did today.”
James Gist scored 17 points and Ekene Ibekwe added 16 points and 10 rebounds as Maryland (17-6, 3-5 ACC) earned its first conference road win in five tries while fending off the Demon Deacons (10-12, 2-8).
It hardly mattered it was against the league’s cellar dwellers, nor that the Terps still have much work to do to burnish their postseason resume, nor that Maryland proceeded to nearly squander a 23-point lead in the second half.
The victory was a response to an important, logical question: Could the Terps ever win again outside College Park? It had been more than two months since Maryland won at Illinois, and its road map upon leaving the Comcast Center loading dock in that time led to a dead end full of losses. The ACC losses piled up one after another as Maryland dug itself a 2-5 hole in league play — a deficit only four conference teams before them emerged from to reach the NCAA tournament.
“We knew we needed to get a road win here and we kind of got the monkey off our back a little bit,” freshman guard Eric Hayes said. “We just knew we had to come here and play hard and get this win. It was kind of a must-win for us.”
The first half provided a hint of that urgency, as the Terps clearly decided their defense was more useful in a gym than on a milk carton. Maryland built a 32-24 lead, shutting down center Kyle Visser while providing enough perimeter help to pester the Deacons’ guards.
“The defense was a matter of pride,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who joined Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski as the only coaches to win 150 ACC games. “We’re a better defensive team than we played against Florida State. How good we are, I don’t know. I thought we did a good job tonight, but tonight is one game.”
The surge continued into the second half, and D.J. Strawberry (14 points) ignited a run with a slick backdoor cut and layup, drawing a foul and shouting “Take that” at the crowd. When Parrish Brown and Will Bowers nailed consecutive jumpers to make it 55-32, Maryland seemed poised to collect its elusive road victory in overwhelming fashion.
But things rarely unfold so easily for the Terps, even when they build a 23-point lead. The Demon Deacons rattled off a 18-2 run, and Gist followed his dunk during the stretch by pointing at Wake’s David Weaver with both index fingers and drawing a technical foul. It was his fourth foul, and Wake was within 57-50 by the time he returned.
“It probably had something to do with it,” Gist said. “I was just trying to be real intense and get my teammates hyped and everything. Maybe it was a bad decision, so I’ll try to calm down.”
Wake lingered but didn’t get closer than seven points until the final minute, with the Terps coming up with timely scores to repel the Deacons. Maryland made seven of its last eight free throws to finish it out.
Williams dismissed the notion the victory provided some relief for the Terps, but it certainly permitted at least a momentary pause of the pressure building on the team. Maryland plays five of its last eight games at home, and could ill afford a loss to the struggling, youthful Deacons.
“It is about time. … You think I’m going to come out with the mentality I’m going to lose? I’m trying to win every time,” Vasquez said. “We’re really upset that people don’t believe in us. You know what, I don’t mind what people think of us, but I know in the bottom of my heart that this team is going to make a better impression at home now.”
There wasn’t the accustomed rush to scamper back to catch the charter flight back home. Instead, players cracked jokes and smiled in a locker room they visit no more than once a year, a sight unseen for far too long.
There was also the prospect of a relaxing trip home tempered only by the prospect of equally significant home games against Virginia and Duke to open the second half of league play.
“Finally, it’s going to feel good on that flight back,” Strawberry said. “We can finally talk and get some jokes in. We don’t have to all be so uptight. But we still have to get ready for next week.”