Again, opportunities evade Terps' grasp
And that has been an unfortunately familiar feeling for Maryland in recent years. After their 67-64 loss tonight at Virginia Tech, so, too, is been the daunting outlook for the remainder of the Terrapins' season.
Maryland's red-hot non-conference start, which at the time had many of us believing the doldrums of the past few seasons were gone, feels like ancient history. Nearly a third of the way through their ACC schedule, the Terps (15-5, 1-4 ACC) officially are back to panic mode, whether they'll admit it or not. The NCAA Tournament is a long way from here.
What went wrong this time? It certainly wasn't a lack of heart. Say what you may about them, but the players on this year's team seem to be giving their all. But if there's one consistent trait of Maryland's teams during the past three years, it's been a maddening lack of consistency.
Take Ekene Ibekwe, for example. He'd been on a tear in the past two games, and seemed poised to continue his roll against a guard-heavy Virginia Tech team. The enigmatic senior big man only managed three points on one-of-four shooting and picked up his fourth foul eight minutes into the second half after an ill-advised shove to the head of Tech's Deron Washington.
Maryland hadn't scored a field goal in the previous five minutes and couldn't muster another one for the next four minutes, part of all-too-familiar dry spell that erased the 10-point lead the Terps had built largely on freshman Grevis Vasquez's inspired play.
There's no mystery as to the cause of these droughts: Maryland hasn't had a go-to scorer since the year after its national title. Mike Jones still relies almost solely on spot-up 3-point shooting and D.J. Strawberry leans almost entirely on transition baskets. He plays his heart out, so you have to feel for him, but the reality is he's made 14 of 50 shots in conference play. Not good.
Strawberry made several of those aforementioned tide-turning plays tonight, but did so on both sides of the equation. He drove to the hoop late in regulation, drew Deron Washington's fifth foul and converted both free throws to take a one-point lead. But he was on the other end of the equation several times, committing a few excruciating turnovers while trying to go one-on-one, and letting his man get by him on defense – another of the team's Achilles heels.
Virginia Tech is suited to give Maryland problems, with a pair of senior guards who seemingly are on the Shane Battier plan – it seems like they've been fixtures in Blacksburg longer than smokeless tobacco.
With Ibekwe and Strawberry struggling, the Terps needed freshman guards Eric Hayes and Vasquez to carry them. They had their moments – Hayes' come-from-behind pluck of Jamon Gordon after a turnover by Strawberry late in overtime could have salvaged the game. Vasquez, as he's been know to do, fed off of the crowd's jeers and appeared to be even more juiced than usual because his parents were in the stands.
But they're freshmen, imperfect by nature. While Vasquez's overflowing confidence sometimes leads him to bad decisions, Hayes remains reluctant to shoot the ball unless left completely unguarded. The other, more glaring issue with Hayes is he's not yet strong enough to fight through picks and keep his man from driving into the paint.
That forces Maryland's big men to hedge on Hayes' man for an extra fraction, leaving the middle open for layups and putbacks. The Terps were fortunate that Coleman Collins missed one of two free throws to tie the game at 59-59 – the score at the end of regulation – after he collected an offensive board and was fouled while James Gist jumped out to help Hayes against Gordon. Gist has probably been the team's best player and undoubtedly its most improved, but he never got going en route to a subpar eight-point, eight-rebound night.
Still, Hayes and Vasquez represent hope for the future, which will soon be all we have to hang our hats on if Gary Williams' team doesn't put it together immediately. The Terps are treading water, their toes perilously close to the drain that is the basement of the conference standings. They would be well-served to beat Georgia tech and Florida State in their next two games, but they'd better win at least one, or it's N.I.T. time for the third year in a row.
And even for the most ardent supporter of Maryland's program, that would be a pungent pill to swallow.
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