- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 21, 2007

James Gist knows the look from opposing players as he tries to defend the inside.

It isn’t necessarily a facial expression the Maryland forward sees, and it doesn’t become apparent after just a single play.

Rather, it is an acknowledgment of real estate as a game develops that lets Gist know the power of the blocked shot.

“In the beginning of the game you see people driving to the basket and as the game goes on, you see more jump shots going up because they realize they’re not getting anything inside the paint,” Gist said.

Little is forthcoming because Maryland, despite its recent struggles, remains the ACC’s supreme team at blocking shots as it visits No. 23 Virginia Tech (13-5, 3-1 ACC) tonight. The Terrapins (15-4, 1-3) are averaging 7.9 blocks — a school-record pace and a remarkable figure even for a program that led the conference in the category six of the last seven years.

Senior Ekene Ibekwe ranks second in the conference with 3.11 blocks, and Gist is third at 2.53. When Boston College dismissed league leader Sean Williams this week, it left the Terp teammates as the most prolific shot swatters in the conference.

Together, Gist and Ibekwe serve as dual obstacles for opponents looking to establish offense in the paint — at least on a first look.

“Usually a blocked shot is pretty close to the basket, which means the other team has done a pretty good job of getting the ball to where they normally can score,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “If you can block a shot, that really improves the defense. If you’re playing good defense, the other team normally doesn’t get in there every time, but if they do you still have that ultimate weapon.”

Williams has enjoyed the luxury of a strong shot blocker for most of his 18 years at Maryland. Whether it was Cedric Lewis, Joe Smith, Terence Morris or Lonny Baxter, there was usually someone — either a lithe leaper or a burly-though-crafty interior defender — to cause a perimeter player to pause before entering the paint.

The 6-foot-9 Ibekwe already was an accomplished shot-blocker when he arrived three seasons ago, but he’s in the midst of his most efficient season. He has set a career-high with 56 blocks and moved into the top five on Maryland’s all-time blocks list earlier this month.

“It’s good timing and knowing when to go up there and block a shot,” said Ibekwe, who is two blocks shy of becoming the 21st player in ACC history to reach 200 for a career. “That’s something that’s really needed on this team, to kind of clean up after the guards. If we do that, it’s another possession we’ll get and another one they’ll lose.”

No team understood that reality this year better than Boston College, which lost at home to Vermont without Williams but defeated Michigan State and its first five ACC opponents with him in the middle.

His loss will be a significant blow to the Eagles, who came to rely on the game-changing force Williams’ repeated rejections could produce.

“He makes tremendous plays, at times very calming plays,” Boston College coach Al Skinner said Monday, two days before Williams’ dismissal and five days before the Eagles lost at Clemson. “We played Wake Forest last week and they were making a nice comeback against us and their guard drove. He comes over, gets the block, we get the ball back and all the sudden it takes away some of that interior play teams would like to have.”

But blocks can only do so much, especially in the absence of rebounding. Williams’ most prolific games — 13 blocks against Duquesne and 12 against Providence — went unrewarded. Despite the hindrance he provided, those teams still found ways to open other avenues to the basket against Boston College and pulled out victories.

In an early second-half possession Jan. 13 against Clemson, Gist directed James Mays’ shot out of bounds. Mays got off three more shots on the possession, and Ibekwe and Gist each got a piece of one. The third made it to the glass, and the Tigers’ Trevor Booker laid it in.

“You don’t want to get to where you depend on it,” Gary Williams said. “It’s got to be in that emergency situation where if you get beat, you have the potential to block that shot.”

A heavy reliance on blocks can create other obvious tendencies on the inside, all of which Maryland has suffered from on occasion.

The Terps frequently substituted an attempt at a swat in favor of a more controlled approach earlier this month against Miami. The Hurricanes’ shots were usually lousy, but the Terps were caught out of rebounding position and surrendered putbacks several times in the 63-58 loss.

Another problem — assuming any shot can be blocked — can be even more hazardous, especially when dealing with a center adept at squeezing the space and angle with which a defender has to operate like North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. That in turn can lead to foul trouble, which is the best nullification of a shot blocker’s skills.

“You’re not always going to get it. It’s one of the hardest things in basketball, to block a shot. …,” Williams said. “You want your perimeter people to keep guys from getting into the paint or you don’t want the ball caught on the block where you don’t have a chance to block a guy’s shot because if you play against a Hansbrough, you’re not going to block his shot. I don’t care how good a shot blocker you are.”

There are different ways for a smart offense to avoid the influence of the blocked shot. Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg believes that maintaining spacing — and the penetration reads and passing outlets it keeps available — is vital in handling any especially aggressive defender.

However, sound principles don’t always assuage the humiliation of watching a shot redirected two rows into the crowd.

“It’s a great effect,” Gist said. “Now they know once we get past the outside we have to get through the inside. As long as me and Ekene and Bambale [Osby] keep holding down the middle and blocking shots, that’s going to give that bit of fear that people know once they get past the front line, they still have another line to get through.”

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