Monday, January 15, 2007

Maryland center Will Bowers eagerly delivered chest-bumps to his ecstatic teammates in the hallway Saturday outside the locker room in the moments after the Terrapins upended Clemson.

The 7-footer was loose, energetic and excited, a reflection of the surge the senior has quietly enjoyed the last three games.

Bowers’ statistics — 4.7 points and 3.0 rebounds — in that span are modest. But as the Terps (15-3, 1-2 ACC) delve deeper into conference play, including tonight’s visit to Virginia (9-6, 1-2), Bowers could prove vital if he can provide a dozen solid minutes each night.

He delivered perhaps his best game of the season Saturday. Even though he played just 12 minutes, he matched his season high with six points and forced athletic forward James Mays to work harder to earn looks at the basket.

“I think Will is just relaxing and playing,” coach Gary Williams said. “This is his last go-round, his last chance in the ACC. Whatever happens, happens.

“There’s not ‘Well, if you play well this year, then next year you might get more of an opportunity to play.’ He’s done with that part of his career. It’s how you’re doing now that counts.”

November and December didn’t foreshadow any sort of push. Bowers earned his minutes in blowouts but played a reduced role in most of the Terps’ tight games unless starters James Gist and Ekene Ibekwe stumbled into foul trouble or injury. Even then he was seemingly invisible, going scoreless in seven of nine games.

It had the markings of another long season for Bowers, who Williams again touted as being in the best shape of his career at the start of practice.

“I didn’t have the type of season I thought I was going to have in the beginning,” Bowers said. “Since over the summer, I’ve been working really hard, and just things weren’t going my way at the beginning of the season. I just wanted to stick with it and keep playing hard and just try to turn it around.”

Bowers looked better in Maryland’s nonconference finale against Iona, delivering an active six-point performance. Six days later, he was an interior obstacle for Miami and grabbed a season-high five rebounds as the rest of the Terps’ big men struggled to prevent second-chance looks.

Saturday suggested greater progress. He finished off a slick pass from Parrish Brown just before halftime, and his two late layups answered Clemson baskets and helped prevent a rally. He remained valuable on defense, providing an effective look, different than what Gist and Ibekwe provide.

“It’s just picking my spots,” Bowers said. “When I have good open shots or a good opportunity to make a post move, I’m going to make it. My main thing is moving for rebounds out of my area, which was a big weakness earlier in the season. I think I’m a little bit quicker now.”

His most important stretch might have been a 31/2-minute stint early in the second half. Bowers and Bambale Osby entered with a nine-point lead to give Gist and Ibekwe a rest. When the pair departed, the Terps were up 10. It was part of a balanced performance from Maryland’s bench, a welcome sign for the rest of the season.

Williams relied mostly on seven players in a loss last month at Boston College, and the ability to extend his rotation to include Bowers and guard Parrish Brown consistently for close to double-figure minutes totals would create some flexibility.

“We can go nine or 10 deep effectively, and we don’t drop off when we go deep onto our bench,” Bowers said. “When you have that luxury, especially with a long ACC season against some physical teams, that gives you a big edge.”

Bowers seems more enthused than at any point in his career, and perhaps it is a product of his improved play. Yet his excitability on the bench, on the floor and even in the hallway after a game suggest there might be something more to him than in past seasons.

“This is as most as I’ve seen Will into basketball since I’ve been here, since we’ve all been here,” senior guard D.J. Strawberry said. “He’s into basketball, and we’re all into basketball. This is our life right here.”

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