Wednesday, January 17, 2007

CHARLOTTESVILLE — It wasn’t enough to display two strikingly different personalties last week, an abysmal one against Miami and an admirable one against Clemson.

The Maryland basketball team just had to cram all of its inconsistency into one night.

The bad Terrapins — those with a fondness for first-half fouling foibles, a tendency for turnovers and a proclivity for defensive deficiency — showed up long enough to dig themselves a insurmountable hole.

Their better selves — those who rebound, shoot smart and mercilessly harass opposing ball-handlers — arrived just a bit late and didn’t loiter nearly long enough to overcome it in a 103-91 loss to Virginia.

“I don’t know what it is,” senior guard D.J. Strawberry said. “One day we pass the ball great, the next we come out and take dumb shots. That’s just something that happens. I guess when we were getting down, people panicked and tried to do it themselves. We’re a team, and we have to do it together, and that’s the only way we’re going to win games.”

Maryland (15-4, 1-3 ACC) — bedeviled by a matador defense in the first half, an absent offense in the second and deep foul trouble in both — lost for the first in seven games against the Cavaliers.

The Terps’ first visit to glistening John Paul Jones Arena was also the opening of a stretch featuring four road trips in five games. Their down-and-up-and-back-down performance could prove a lousy harbinger for the rest of the three-week stretch, which also includes visits to No. 23 Virginia Tech, Florida State and Wake Forest.

“I don’t want to say much about it,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said of his team’s inconsistency. “In the ACC this year, you have to play well every night.”

Mamadi Diane scored a career-high 26 points, and Sean Singletary added 25 for Virginia (10-6, 2-2), which improved to 9-1 at its new home. Also telling was Jason Cain’s workmanlike 13-point, 16-rebound effort as the Cavaliers drubbed the Terps 48-36 on the boards.

Of even greater significance to Maryland was its rapidly growing foul total. While five Terps reached double figures in points, just as many had four fouls by the under-eight media timeout.

Strawberry, held to 11 points, was the first to pick up his fourth foul. The call was originally announced against Mike Jones, but the crowd of 14,765 cheered loudly when it was switched to Maryland’s leading scorer with 14:51 left.

The Terps were within 58-53 at that juncture and added a pair of Ekene Ibekwe free throws on the next possession. But both Ibekwe (17 points, 14 rebounds) and Greivis Vasquez (17 points, including a career-high five 3-pointers) soon picked up their fourth fouls, and Virginia pounced with three Maryland starters banished to the bench.

J.R. Reynolds made two free throws, and Singletary drained a pull-up jumper at the foul line. Diane then delivered a 3-pointer and slipped a pass to Cain for an easy layup, and the Cavaliers had a 70-55 lead, forcing Williams to burn his final timeout.

The fouls only led to free throws, and Virginia held an inordinate advantage at the line. The Cavaliers took twice as many foul shots as the Terps (49-24) and made 39 — one shy of the school record set in 1955 against Duke.

“You never know. There’s a lot of things that can go into foul trouble. It can be Virginia. It can be Maryland. It can be …,” Williams said before trailing off.

The Four Foul Brigade re-entered to little effect with 9:44 left. Jones and Will Bowers soon earned their fourth fouls, and there was little to be done to stop Diane and Reynolds from driving in for layups as they did on consecutive possessions to make it 80-65 with six minutes left.

Bowers, Ibekwe and Strawberry all eventually fouled out, and the collective concern of ending the night prematurely contributed to tentative play.

“We were gambling,” Williams said. “We had a lot of guys out there with four and the problem with that is sometimes guys don’t play hard because they’re worried about getting their fifth. I thought that happened in a few plays. We had to gamble, so I didn’t mind that. It affected us, but we did what we had to do.”

The Terps did not do what was necessary in the first half, fouling frequently and disdaining defense on their way to a 50-30 deficit. They switched to a press in the closing minutes of the first half, a move that spurred a 13-0 keyed by a pair of Vasquez 3-pointers off turnovers to pull within 50-43.

Virginia didn’t decipher Maryland’s zone so easily but did so enough to go unthreatened in the last 10 minutes. With the help of Maryland’s incredible shrinking offense — the inopportune return of the bad Terps — the Cavaliers accomplished just what Miami had and others are sure to do if given a chance: exploit an increasingly inconsistent bunch.

“It’s something you can’t put a finger on,” forward James Gist said. “It’s something you just have to work on. It’s the ACC. We have to want it, that’s all.”

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