- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cliff Tucker’s junior season was starting to look a lot like its predecessor.

Uneven. Sporadic. Enigmatic.

Perhaps one game can change that. Tucker - and Maryland - can only hope.

The swingman scored a season-high 13 points in Tuesday’s rout of Winston-Salem State, a much-needed boost for a player whose playing time remains in just as much flux as it was this time last season.

“It meant a lot to me,” Tucker said. “I’ve been struggling, just like last year with not playing much. This year, I didn’t do a lot of pouting. I talked to Coach, and he just wanted me to practice hard.”

So Tucker has for the Terrapins (7-3), who host Florida Atlantic (5-6) on Sunday afternoon. He’ll be looking for the first back-to-back double-digit scoring outings of his career as well as the steadiness that has eluded him throughout his three seasons.

This is the guy who scored 22 points against eventual national champion North Carolina last season. He’s also the sometimes-sweet shooter whose slick passing ability occasionally is overlooked.

There was little doubt about his shot Tuesday. He made all five attempts - three from 3-point range - as he turned in the best scoring night of the season among Maryland’s usual reserves.

“It is there; you just have to figure it out,” coach Gary Williams said Tuesday. “I think tonight was a big step for Cliff. He got 17 minutes. He wasn’t getting that many minutes, but off of tonight obviously, you look at the next game and have to figure out a way to get him out there.”

If there is something different about Tucker, it’s maturity. Tucker candidly acknowledged he didn’t take practice seriously in the past, which in turn led to less playing time and greater frustration.

But there’s more to it. Any reserve’s court time is limited, and there were countless instances throughout Tucker’s career when an errant shot or wild pass was quickly followed by a starter marching to the scorer’s table to check in for him.

Fair or not, that likely would cause some hesitance for anyone. But Tucker shoved that aside in Maryland’s first game back from exams, instead concerning himself with just playing well when granted the opportunity.

“I think I was just playing and not worrying about anything,” he said. “I think a lot of times I get in the game worried about not making a mistake and thinking about if I’m going to come out or worried about how many minutes I’m going to play. I just got in the game and didn’t worry about anything.”

He’s also set to work at correcting his practice habits. After playing at least 13 minutes in every game in November, Tucker logged 13 minutes in the first three games this month. But he turned in a strong week of work during exams and wound up with his best game of the season.

“He’s just working harder,” guard Adrian Bowie said. “In the beginning, he didn’t work as hard, but the talent has always been there. The more he’s working harder, the better he’s looking, and it’s translating into the game.”

How long it will is uncertain. Tucker’s strong games in the past were always tantalizing, but even he knows steady play is elusive. After the 22-point outing against North Carolina last year, he collected 22 points in the Terps’ final nine outings.

This year, though, his attitude is different. So too, potentially, will be the results.

“Coach told me it was a good game, so hopefully I can keep going,” Tucker said. “I don’t want to just have a good game and the next game go back to normal. Hopefully I can keep going and playing the way I am.”

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