Sunday, February 18, 2007

Terps tame the Tigers

Maryland won its third consecutive game for the first time since December and took another step towards earning a bid in the NCAA tournament. Against a struggling and desperate Clemson squad the Terrapins showed some poise and fortitude that had been missing as they muddled through the first half of their ACC schedule. Getting their third straight road victory in the ACC wasn't easy as the Tigers have too much talent and experience to go away without a fight.

Maryland went out to a double digit lead right before halftime before settling on an eight point advantage at the break. The two catalysts for this win, Greivis Vasquez and DJ Strawberry, then came up big and scored 10 points and dished two assists in a two minute span that helped gain an advantage for Maryland. Vasquez continues to improve game to game and was at times dominant scoring 15 points and amassing an incredible 11 assists and 5 steals. It was an amazing performance for a freshman in such an important road game. This game followed up another 15 point, 6 assist and 4 steal gem against NC State last week. If Terp fans had any doubt about Vasquez before this week they should all be gone now.

With just over eight minutes remaining in the game Maryland's once 12 point advantage had been reduced to a single point. Clemson had momentum, their crowed aroused from its slumber to roar and Maryland seemed rattled by the pressure. It was a perfect recipe for a collapse by the team some, like me, considered a little soft in the belly. Maryland needed its leaders to come through in this tenuous moment. Earlier in the season Maryland may not have had an answer but recently when the Terrapins have found themselves in this position Greivis Vasquez and DJ Strawberry have been the heroes. Tonight was no different. Behind those two Maryland stiffened its defense and showed who was the tougher team by going on a 19-5 run to seal the win.

This victory must have also been sweet for the often maligned Strawberry. He scored 22 points many off of assists from Vasquez and was aggressive in looking for scoring opportunities. I felt that Maryland would not be able to make the postseason without Strawberry playing well. In his last two games he has scored 40 points and grabbed 11 rebounds with only two turnovers. He has also seemed to find a nice rhythm with Vasquez on the floor which is obvious when you realize that Vasquez had assists on seven out of Strawberry's nine field goals! That is an amazing number. It speaks to the comfort that Strawberry has found with Vasquez and the confidence that he doesn't have to force bad shots to create offense. Between them they have formed an impressive duo.

As in the NC State game both James Gist and Ekene Ibekwe were limited by foul problems. They played 27 and 25 minutes respectively in the game. Both were effective during their time in the game and Gist dominated the first half with 12 points. Ibekwe struggle to guard the physical post players for Clemson but still managed 6 points and 6 rebounds. Maryland got another decent performance from its bench players with Bambale Osby and Will Bowers combining for 8 points and 5 rebounds but also providing 27 minutes of valuable play while Gist or Ibekwe were nursing foul problems on the bench. They helped Maryland to win the rebounding battle with Clemson, even if they did surrender 11 offensive rebounds, 33-31 which helped Maryland pull away for a 16 point win.

Maryland did a decent job defensively limiting Clemson to 32% from 3-point range and a respectable 43% from the floor (40% in the 2nd half). They forced 17 Clemson turnovers while limiting their own mistakes to a scant 12 turnovers, matching the previous game total at NC State for the second lowest number in the season. Why is Maryland on a three game winning streak? They are doing almost everything better in every aspect of the game.

Another important development is that seniors like Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe have seemed to accept diminished roles and deferred to freshman like Vasquez and Eric Hayes. In contrast to earlier games in the season when both players lead the team in scoring while forcing bad shots and disrupting the offensive flow they are now taking their opportunities only when given high percentage shots. Is it a coincidence that Maryland has lost every game that Jones has lead the team in scoring? Both Ibekwe and Jones are more valuable being contributors and not trying to dominate the offense. If this three game winning streak, or the previous struggles, are any indication it is clear that the two seniors are not the kinds of players you flow your offense through and win very often. With this apparent change in the flow of the offense it has brought the best out in the true franchise players on this team, James Gist and Greivis Vasquez. Maryland will win more often than not if Gary Williams continues to put the fortunes of this team in their hands.

Maryland gets a trip back to College Park to face the Florida State Seminoles who have gone in the opposite direction since demolishing Maryland last month, losing their last four in a row. They will likely be without their second leading scorer Toney Douglas who has missed the last three games with a broken hand. Douglas scored 16 points in FSU's 96-79 win over Maryland.

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