Sunday, January 14, 2007

An unsightly loss to Miami was more than enough for D.J. Strawberry.

The senior watched Maryland’s last two seasons disintegrate as the Terrapins shrugged off similar performances, only for the same problems to resurface repeatedly. Junior forward James Gist, aghast at the Terps’ inability to pass or finish easy shots, didn’t want to endure another lost season, either.

The pair called their teammates together for a players-only meeting after Thursday’s practice, less than 24 hours after the ugly setback. It lasted all of 15 minutes, but its impact could reverberate well beyond yesterday’s 92-87 victory against previously perfect Clemson at Comcast Center.

The message Gist, Strawberry and all the rest delivered was clear after Maryland felled the nation’s last unbeaten team: These Terps won’t go as quietly and meekly as their predecessors.

“That’s how we’ve done it the past two years,” Strawberry said. “We just let it go on and go on. We’d lose one and it was ‘OK, it’ll be all right, we’ll get the next one.’ No, it has to stop. We can’t continue to play like that and it has to stop right here. We can’t afford to keep losing.”

Instead of permitting the lousy play of the 63-58 loss to the Hurricanes to cascade into something greater, the Terps (15-3, 1-2 ACC) reverted to their style from the first month of the season. The passing, particularly in the interior, was precise. The 3-point shot was eschewed for a more patient approach. Rebounding was an asset rather than a glaring liability.

Throw in the balance of all five starters scoring in double figures — Ekene Ibekwe had a team-high 20 points — and the thought of the Terps’ utter incomprehension of the game’s fundamentals just three days earlier was even more perplexing.

Count Gist among the most frustrated after Wednesday’s debacle. He watched his first two seasons fizzle, and Clemson was well-established as a personal nemesis after taking four games from the Terps the last two years.

To him, there was no reason to dawdle in making a point, at one juncture of the meeting delineating each player’s role and stressing how each fit into seeking an NCAA tournament berth.

“We can’t go on like this. It’s ACC season and this is when it counts,” Gist recalled telling his teammates. “We’re trying to get to the tournament and have our fun. We have to have this meeting and talk about it and put it all out there and if anybody has any problem with anybody, it needs to be known now and not later in the season.”

There were few problems yesterday besides a two-minute hiccup in the first half in which Clemson erased a 10-point deficit. The suddenly torrid Terps — who went from shooting 22.4 percent Wednesday to 62.7 percent yesterday — regrouped and built a 48-42 halftime lead.

The Terps’ final basket of the half was emblematic of the game. Reserve Parrish Brown drove into the lane, then made a clever dish to Will Bowers for a layup. Brown finished with eight points, Bowers seven. Both provided vital minutes in both halves.

“The main emphasis was being together on the court,” Bowers said. “Against Miami, I felt like we were just five separate people playing basketball and it wasn’t a team. We wanted to focus on sharing the ball. If you get double-teamed, pass it, and if you don’t have a shot you’re not comfortable with, pass it. I thought we did all those things well today.”

James Mays had 22 points and 15 rebounds for the No. 17 Tigers (17-1, 3-1), who received an early spark from K.C. Rivers (18 points). However, he suffered back spasms after a first-half spin move and lost some mobility after the break. Strawberry, who was draped all over him, also played a part in Rivers’ second-half disappearance.

Clemson, though, struggled to rebound against a team that suffered a 55-41 deficit in the category Wednesday. And while the Tigers eventually grabbed their share of offensive rebounds in the second half, the Terps remained stout inside and held a 48-46 scoring edge in the paint.

“The key to the game was the fact that we could rebound with them,” coach Gary Williams said. “There was no indication after the Miami game that would happen today and that took a lot of willpower.”

It was established Thursday, well beyond the time Williams spent with his players stressing how solid Maryland’s defense against Miami or emphasizing the importance of rebounding and funneling the offense inside.

One of Williams’ frequent refrains is “It starts with the players,” a catch-all phrase for both individual and team improvement. Yesterday’s victory unquestionably was generated by the players, perhaps two days before they even faced Clemson.

“This game basically could have made or broke our season …,” Strawberry said. “It just got the point across. We had to win. We can’t keep losing on our home floor. We have to win. I just wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page and everybody had the same mind-set about how important this game was. We went out and played like it.”

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