Thursday, January 26, 2006

ATLANTA — Life without Chris McCray — at least for one night, anyway — suited the Maryland basketball team just fine.

Playing for the first time since McCray was declared academically ineligible for the rest of the season, the No. 18 Terrapins upended Georgia Tech 86-74 at Alexander Memorial Coliseum behind senior Nik Caner-Medley’s 33 points.

It was also coach Gary Williams’ 348th victory at Maryland, tying him with Lefty Driesell atop the school’s career victories list.

But this victory was far more about moving past the loss of McCray than setting records.

“You can imagine it’s been a pretty tough week in College Park,” Williams said. “I just have to give a lot of credit to where it deserves to be, and that’s with the players. Talk about distractions. There was a lot of distractions.”

The Terps learned of McCray’s ineligibility Monday, and the loss of a player averaging a team-high 15.2 points figured to have some effect on a team that already has endured a two-game losing streak and the arrest of forward Travis Garrison on two misdemeanor charges this month.

At the very least, Maryland knew it would have a tougher chore earning an NCAA tournament bid without its senior co-captain. Instead, the Terps (14-4, 4-2 ACC) picked up their first road victory of the season with a complete performance against the reeling Yellow Jackets (9-8, 2-4), who have lost four straight games by double digits for the first time since 1998.

“Now that we’ve lost Chris, I think a lot of people are going to doubt us and [say] we’re not going to be a tournament team and we’re not going to be a good team,” junior point guard D.J. Strawberry said. “We believe in ourselves, and we believe in our team.”

Caner-Medley is responsible for a great deal of Maryland’s collective confidence. The senior, who enjoyed the second-largest output of his career (he scored 35 against Saturday’s opponent, Temple, last season), led the Terps in scoring for the sixth time in nine games, and his play early in the second half ensured Maryland would not be in serious danger of losing near the end.

The Terps held a 43-35 lead at the break, and it was Caner-Medley’s layup and 3-pointer on consecutive possessions that bumped the lead to 11 for the first time. The lead hovered around 10 for another five minutes before Caner-Medley produced another inside shot followed by a 3-pointer and a layup to make it 63-45.

From there, Maryland merely converted free throws — it made 41, tying a school record set in 1994 against Morgan State — to close the complete performance and avoid the inevitable questions of its ability to win games without McCray that a loss would have ensured.

“I knew sooner or later it would happen, but it’s nice to get it that first game to prove to ourselves we could do it,” Williams said.

Junior Mike Jones slid into the starting lineup in place of McCray and supplied an early spark, though he eventually encountered foul trouble and finished with 12 points.

Georgia Tech endured its share of foul trouble, with forward Jeremis Smith (eight points) struggling to be much of a factor inside. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt looked perplexed much of the night, finally earning a technical foul in the second half.

Williams had his moments of frustration as well, and he jawed with a fan in the Georgia Tech student section after he heard a jeer he believed was inappropriate while Strawberry was at the foul line. He wasn’t too concerned, though, with a marathon game that featured 57 fouls and 41 turnovers, if only because the Terps snapped a 1-4 skid at Alexander.

“It seemed smooth to me,” Williams said. “We’re a choppy team. If you call choppy getting an 18-point lead in Atlanta, I’ll take choppy every time we play. I don’t think we’ve ever had an 18-point lead down here in the time we’ve been here.”

That the Terps won so easily in a traditionally tough venue without their leading scorer suggests their season might not fade as some might have believed. Maryland has its first three-game regular season ACC winning streak since 2003, as well as a belief it can move on without McCray.

“It’s a huge loss for us, but we’re just as good a team without him as we were with him,” Strawberry said.

Added Caner-Medley: “At this point in the season, we can’t make excuses. We have to understand that we don’t have Chris anymore, and we have to do the things necessary to win.”

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