Monday, January 16, 2006
It was a critical night for the fortunes of this season and, for now, Maryland looks headed in the right direction. For both on and off the court reasons Maryland was reeling coming into this game against an equally desperate Wake Forest squad. They were coming off two games where they were soundly defeated and had the distractions of the Garrison arrest and suspension two days prior. Gary Williams himself said it was one of the more difficult weeks that he's had in recent memory. In spite of all that this group, minus Garrison, was able to hold off a veteran and talented Deacons squad that came to College Park ready to fight to the end.
Wake Forest wasn't going to roll over in this game even though they could have after Eric Williams got three quick fouls in only 8 minutes to start the game. The Deacons were down 17 points with less than 10 minutes to go but outscored Maryland from that point 38-25, and had a 10-3 run in one minute at the end of the game. You would expect a veteran club like Wake to close the gap a little but it seemed Maryland's defense got lazy with a large double digit lead and they suddenly found themselves in a street fight with under a minute remaining. Nik Caner-Medley took an ill advised 3-pointer with more than 20 seconds left on the shot clock and Chris McCray threw the ball away on a fast break when taking 30 seconds off the clock was more important. A few plays like that and Wake Forest was back into the game. That is how thin the margin of error is for this group and they need to always keep that in mind. Against a better team those mistakes could have cost them a game that should have been salted away in the last 5 minutes.
There were a number of heroes in the game and with five players in double figures plus 27 points off the bench it was a total effort. Mike Jones scored a season high 22 points and probably had the best game of his career against high level competition. Jones was on fire from the 3-point line and even added a couple nice assists on drives to the basket. In this game Jones was used in a way that was tailored to his strengths and for his part he took good shots when he had them. Jones isn't a great defender or ball handler but Gary Williams showed some increased confidence in giving Jones 26 minutes and getting the inbounds pass when Wake was pressing in the final minutes. Based on his postgame comments Williams has given Jones the "green light" to shoot whenever he is open. I'm not sure how much I'd make out of those comments since Jones real problem has been shot selection and not refusing to shoot. Perhaps it is just more an indication that Jones has a longer leash now.
DJ Strawberry bounced back from a wretched game against Duke and was sensational. He had a career high 18 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. He shot 5-7 from the floor, including 2-2 from long range, and 6-7 from the free throw line. His critical 4 free throws in the final 30 seconds clinched the game for Maryland.
Nik Caner-Medley had a nice night with 17 points and 8 rebounds while limiting himself to one turnover. He filled in at power forward when Gist and Ibekwe got into early foul trouble. He had a good night on defense as well and led the team with 6 defensive rebounds.
James Gist made the most of his first start since early last year. Although limited to 26 minutes due to foul trouble he still posted 13 points and 6 rebounds. He rarely takes a bad shot or give away silly fouls and has the athletic ability to score baskets that no other frontcourt player can. I love his potential and the more he plays the better off Maryland will be going forward. His only slight weaknesses are on defense and rebounding.
Chris McCray's recent funk continued in the first half as he was shut out and struggled to cover Justin Gray. He rebounded with a decent 2nd half but you have to wonder if McCray isn't more suited to being a nice roll player on a great team as opposed to the "go to" guy on a mediocre team. He doesn't seem to possess the skills needed to be the focal point of the offense. His outside shot is only mediocre and he is unable to create off the dribble. He is good at finding the open man and doing the dirty work but Maryland fans will have to expect he will disappear in big games this year.
Ekene Ibekwe struggle with early fouls and was never a factor. Will Bowers stepped in and contributed a solid 18 minutes as Gary Williams went small and played a box-and-one and 1-3-1 zone for short stretches. His defense on Wake's frontcourt was more than adequate. Sterling Ledbetter was resurrected last night and played 13 minutes, including crucial stretches, while amassing 4 assists.
As a team Maryland was outrebounded by 45-31 for an amazing -14 margin. Long rebounds from Wake's 19 misses from 3-point range accounted for some of that. Maryland held Wake to 39.7% shooting but kept them in the game by giving up 23 free throws of which Wake made 20.
The film study of the Duke loss must have been productive because Maryland protected the ball and only turned it over 11 times for a stingy 13% turnover rate. Couple that with 22 assists for a 71% assist per basket rate and it was a great night for the ball handlers. Some of that is due to a Wake defense that is unable to pressure the ball but it was still a good performance for Maryland's guards.
Maryland now gets a practice week while feeling good about themselves before the Virginia Tech game on Saturday. The Hokies are staggering after losing at home to rival Virginia for an 0-4 ACC start. Maryland needs to get out early in the game and stomp out any hope that Tech has to stay in the game. With a three game stretch of Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Temple it is time for Maryland to harvest its nuts before consecutive games versus North Carolina and NC State.