- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Orange-clad Virginia Tech students streamed into Cassell Coliseum last night, free to take just about any seat they wanted as lousy weather kept away many season ticket holders justifiably reticent to try their luck on poorly plowed local roads.

It was the Hokies’ first home game as a ranked team in nearly 11 years — since many of those students were in elementary school, two jobs ago for Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg and three conferences ago for a program consigned to middle-of-the-pack or worse finishes for a decade.

So naturally it was cause for a rowdy party, the kind you get when those pesky adults aren’t around to spoil the fun and take up all the good seats. And it was into this fiery crucible Maryland had the misfortune of walking on an otherwise frigid night.

The Terrapins tried to ruin the festivities, first with a rally late in regulation and then with an attempt at another in overtime. But the crowd received its payoff with a 67-64 victory for No. 23 Virginia Tech, while Maryland fell for the third time in four games.

“We have to move on, and we have to play the same way,” said guard D.J. Strawberry, who led the Terps with 16 points. “They had the crowd behind them, and they were making tough shots. I felt we played well enough to win the game. They just won it today. Things just didn’t go our way.”

The loss dropped the Terps (15-5) to 1-4 in the ACC for the first time since 1992-93. That was the year between Walt Williams’ departure and Joe Smith’s arrival, an interregnum before Maryland ripped off 11 straight NCAA tournament berths.

The Terps haven’t been there the last two seasons, and no one was in any mood to discuss the possibility of another NCAA miss — even though the Terps are just a half-game ahead of ACC basement dweller Wake Forest with more than a quarter of the conference season complete and Georgia Tech ready for a Wednesday visit to Comcast Center.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” coach Gary Williams said. “That’s just for you to write about negative if you want. We’re getting ready for Georgia Tech. That’s our only concern. If we play like we did tonight, we’ll be OK in the league.”

The Hokies (14-5, 4-1) certainly are after their latest impressive performance at home, where they are 10-0. Zabian Dowdell scored 19 points, and Jamon Gordon added 16, and both were involved in one of overtime’s pivotal plays.

With Virginia Tech up 63-61, Dowdell picked Eric Hayes and sent an outlet to Gordon, who went in for a layup. He missed, but Dowdell was there for the putback and a four-point lead.

Strawberry pulled the Terps within three with two foul shots with 50 seconds left, and Maryland then made a defensive stop — much as it had all night while limiting the Hokies to 35.5 percent shooting.

But after a timeout, Mike Jones didn’t have an open look on the perimeter and drove, only to miss a jumper in the paint. The Terps couldn’t foul on the ensuing scrum as the final seconds trickled off the clock.

Just five days after yielding more than 100 points to Virginia, the Terps took a more judicious approach to containing the game’s tempo. And while both Dowdell and Gordon surpassed their season averages, neither went unhindered often.

Still, they helped the Hokies to a 56-48 lead the Terps deconstructed in the final six minutes.

Strawberry’s free throws with 1:45 remaining capped an 11-2 run, though Coleman Collins tied it with a foul shot less than a minute later. Maryland thwarted the Hokies on the next possession, but James Gist’s baseline jumper clanked harmlessly off the rim at the buzzer.

Maryland made only nine shots in the final 25 minutes, shooting 28.1 percent (9-for-32) after halftime.

“We didn’t put the ball in the basket,” Williams said. “That was No. 1. We had a good look in regulation. It doesn’t get any better than that. We didn’t put it in.”

The formula of a winter storm, a predictably poor turnout from regular fans and a free event for otherwise cooped-in students is usually a recipe for a strong homecourt advantage.

In 2000, the Terps visited North Carolina and waited a day to play in Chapel Hill. They wound up losing 73-65 as Carolina students were liberated from their then usual perch in the Dean Dome’s ionosphere. Three years later, Maryland decked No. 10 Wake Forest under similar conditions at Comcast Center.

There was little doubt the extra students made Cassell even more of a pit than usual, even though the corners of the old building were sparse. The Hokies seemed energized by the extra adulation, and both Williams and guard Greivis Vasquez were frequent targets of the students’ wrath.

The native of Venezuela overcame steep first-half foul trouble to score 12 points in his first outing for Maryland with his parents in attendance. He, like his coach and teammates, were already looking ahead to what could be a vital game this week.

“I’m really upset with this loss,” Vasquez said. “But I have to get over it quick and I have to play hard. We have to win on Wednesday no matter what.”

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