Maryland (14-10, 5-8) desperately needed something positive to happen after three consecutive double-digit losses placed them precariously on the NCAA Tournament bubble. As was true during happier times earlier this season, freshman D. J. Strawberry provided the necessary spark.
Terrapin coach Gary Williams inserted Strawberry into the starting lineup for the first time in his career, and he responded like anything but a freshman. As a result, Maryland did not have to wait for his insertion into the game to pick up their defensive intensity. The Terps had it from the opening tip and never gave Clemson (10-15, 3-11) a chance to get untracked.
Maryland pitched a shutout for nearly six minutes during one stretch of the first half and ran off 14 unanswered point to take a commanding 24-7 lead with 7:05 left in the half. The Tigers took advantage of a brief Terrapin lapse to draw within 32-21 at halftime, but the numbers at the break showed just how Maryland had dominated defensively.
The Terps forced (with some help from Clemson) 14 turnovers in the first half and five different players blocked a total of eight shots. When Travis Garrison again got into early foul trouble and Jamar Smith took some ill-advised shots, Ekene Ibekwe and Hassan Fofana stepped in and played solid basketball.
Ibekwe grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots, and knocked down Maryland's only three-pointer of the half. Fofana teamed with him to shut the Tigers down on the offensive boards.
Chris McCray responded to his benching by playing one of his best halves of the year, making four of six shots and, along with John Gilchrist, led the Terps in scoring at the break with eight points. Coach Williams said, " Chris' scoring gave us a little jolt. It was good to see the ball going in the basket. Chris, Hassan, and Ekene kept the energy going for us."
McCray had received encouragement from Williams. "Coach told me he needed me to do more," McCray said, "so I just came out and played aggressive."
Clemson made only two of their first 15 shots and finished the half shooting only 25.9%. They did not make a single three-pointer in the half.
Clemson took advantage of some sloppy ball handling by Maryland to creep within eight points several times in the second half and cause some grumbling amongst the faithful. Gilchrist stepped forward as the steadying force the Terps needed. "Gilchrist was just solid when they made a couple of runs at us," Coach Williams said after the game.
The Tigers' last chance at making a run at the Terps came with 6:15 remaining in the game. They had just cut the Maryland lead to 53-44 and forced Williams to call a time out. The Terps came back with a 12-0 run to put the game away. A three-pointer by Gilchrist and a spectacular dunk by Strawberry to finish a fast break forced Clemson coach Oliver Purnell to call time, but that did not slow the Terps down.
McCray made a jumper, Strawberry scored on an acrobatic putback, and Ibekwe knocked down two free throws to give the Terps an insurmountable 65-44 lead with 2:49 to play.
Maryland shot 60.9% in the second half, taking the ball inside and scoring in transition. Coach Williams pointed out "We took really good shots, and when you do that, you're going to shoot a good percentage. We simplified some things and tried to stay steady on what we do best."
The Terps also dominated the boards after halftime, holding a 21-9 rebounding advantage. Ibekwe led Maryland, tying his career high with 10 boards for the game.
On the offensive end, Gilchrist was the key. John finished with 19 points and six assists, drawing praise from his coach. "He's really starting to see people on the court, "Williams said, "I think he's really starting to pass well. He's really coming along." Gilchrist also came up with five steals.
Strawberry made 7-9 shots and finished with 15 points, five rebounds, three steals, and two blocks. McCray made 6-8 shots and contributed 14 points and five rebounds.
Clemson had only one player, Sharrod Ford, score in double figures. Ford led the Tigers with 14 points. Clemson finished with 22 turnovers and made only 31.4% of their shots, 23.1% from three-point range.
On the other side of the ledger, Jamar Smith made only 4-11 shots, and Nik Caner-Medley sunk deeper into a horrendous slump. In 20 minutes of playing time, Caner-Medley missed all three of shots, did not score a single point, and committed seven turnovers. Free throw shooting continued to be sub-standard for the Terps as they made only 10 of 20 (50%).
Coach Williams was proud of the way his team handled Sunday's debacle at Duke, "Our players did a great job in practice yesterday and they came out ready to play. It is a sign of maturity for our team to put the game Sunday behind us."
Williams also told his team to "let me handle the talk and all that and just play." They held up their end of the bargain tonight
Notes From Under the Shell
Maryland stays in seventh place in the ACC with a 5-8 record after tonight's win. The Terps move within one game of Florida State and North Carolina, who are tied for fifth. With Virginia's win over North Carolina tonight, they are still only ½ game ahead of the Cavaliers and are still at risk of winding up in the dreaded ACC Tournament play-in game. Clemson sinks further into last place and is the only ACC team with an overall losing record.
The Terps still have a chance of finishing at least 7-9 in the conference, which should assure them of the school's 11 th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Maryland's strength of schedule coming into this game was ranked fourth in the nation, and the team's RPI was 34, comfortably in range to earn a NCAA bid.
Maryland continues to dominate its series with Clemson, now leading 84-42 all-time. The Terps are now 49-8 vs. the Tigers at College Park. Maryland has won their last 13 meetings with Clemson, including the last seven at home.
This was the second time in their last four meetings that the Terps have held Clemson below 50 points.
It was disappointing to see hundreds of empty seats in the student section tonight. Hey ticket holders, if you can't be bothered to come to a critical game when your team is struggling, please give your tickets to someone who will come and support the team. The students that did manage to tear themselves away from their textbooks made a lot of noise tonight.
Maryland can go a long, long way toward securing a NCAA bid by winning their next game on Saturday, when Wake Forest visits the Comcast Center. ABC will televise the game beginning at 1:00 PM. Coach Williams said, "Hopefully that'll be a big enough game for everyone to come out and watch."
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