- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

The ball whipped around the perimeter, too quickly for Maryland to sag into the post to deny a physical force in the paint and still have a hand in the face of every outside shooter.

The outside movement was impressive, almost as if the orange orb rotated clockwise on its own, rather than with help. And sure enough, there was an open shot at the end of the line, and reliably it fell through.

It was one of any number of plays in the second half of Maryland’s 93-64 loss at Clemson on Tuesday. But the scene also played itself at out at Miami. And Duke. And North Carolina, which visits Comcast Center on Saturday.

As the Terrapins (16-9, 5-6 ACC) return home for a pair of games against top-10 opponents, the puzzle that existed at the start of the season still remains: At what cost can an undersized team defend the interior?

On multiple occasions this season, coach Gary Williams referred to it as a “pick your poison” scenario. Sometimes, such as when the Terps stifled Georgia Tech’s frontcourt and forced the Yellow Jackets’ backcourt into a plethora of turnovers, it worked.

Other times - notably in losses to North Carolina and Clemson - the Terps found it impossible to keep up while trading twos (or nothing) for open 3-pointers.

“It feels like teams get hot against us,” senior forward Dave Neal lamented.

Even with the 3-point line moved back a foot this season, the Terps have surrendered at least 10 successful long-range shots on seven occasions - more than in the past two seasons combined. Perhaps the extra space the new line creates has hurt the Terps. But even if it hasn’t, the No. 3 Tar Heels (24-2, 10-2) possess the ability to shred an opponent.

“You have to really work hard defensively anyway,” said Williams, whose team yielded 16 3-pointers in a 108-91 loss to the Tar Heels on Feb. 3. “When you play Carolina, which can shoot the 3-point shot, that’s one of the things you really have to work on. … We found out last time we have to do a good job of that.”

Certainly, there are a couple of ways to approach a teams with dominant post players, such as North Carolina (with Tyler Hansbrough) or Clemson (with Trevor Booker). Trying to double-down in the post leads to open shots on the outside, where the Terps have at times adopted a reactionary zone approach as a trade-off to minding the middle.

The alternative is to play a more straight-up defense which, given the size differential of many opponents, understandably has caused the smallish Terps to pause.

Neither yielding a barrage of 3-pointers nor permitting the possibility of a feast in the paint is especially palatable to Maryland, but there’s little doubt the risk of at least one is present Saturday. That only means the onus on concocting a solution is greater than ever.

“It’s tough, but we’re definitely capable of doing it,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “We’ve done it before. We played against some good teams, and almost every team in the ACC is a big team. I think we’ve done pretty well with it. We’re definitely capable of doing it. It’s just a matter of us going out there and doing it.”

It will require a substantially different performance than either the one that let Clemson score 59 points in the second half or the porous, permissive outing while surrendering 60 points before halftime at North Carolina. No matter the past, the present priority is clear: Contain the potent Tar Heels on the perimeter, even if opportunities emerge elsewhere.

“I’m just hoping one day the luck is going to be with us and they’re not shooting the ball well on us,” said Neal, whose team is 0-4 in league games when allowing opponents to shoot 40 percent or better from 3-point range. “I’m hoping this game is going to be it. We’re going to play hard defensively and try to contest every single shot and try to leave them the least amount of open shots possible.”

If not, that slick outside passing could produce another spellbinding - and familiar - result.

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