Saturday, March 03, 2007

Maryland 79 NC State 59

It was fitting that on senior day the trio of senior starters for Maryland scored 51 points in the win over NC State to close out the regular season on a seven game winning streak. I can't recall a turnaround for a Maryland team as miraculous as the one that this group has put together this season. The last regular season run like this ended with the first Final Four in school history.

It was an odd game. The emotion of the ceremonies honoring the seniors seemed to sap some energy from the team early on and the crowd seemed lethargic for most of the afternoon. In a nod to the seniors on Maryland's bench coach Williams started Parrish Brown and Will Bowers along with the three senior starters. Bowers is not a great matchup for the multi-tool big men that Herb Sendeck recruited like Ben McCauley and Brandon Costner, who is ACC freshman of the year in my book. After Bowers and Brown were finally sent to the bench four minutes into the half Maryland went on a 16-6 run and got a cushion they never relinquished. A couple of poor sequences at the end of the first half, which saw Ben McCauley exploit Will Bowers, allowed the Wolfpack to cut the lead from eleven down to six points in just two minutes.

The game was much closer than the final score indicated as the Terps outscored NC State 12-3 in the last six minutes. I have to admire the scrappy play of NC State this season. They play with the thinnest bench in the league given all five starters are averaging over 32 minutes per game. McCauley has developed into a legitimate low post threat (13 points and 6 rebounds per game in ACC play) and Costner has the chance to be among the best post players in the ACC next season if he stops drifting out to the 3-point line so much. Maryland's experience and superiority in the backcourt proved too much for NC State as they were blitzed by transition baskets and harassed into 37% shooting for the game.

DJ Strawberry continued his string of strong performances with 16 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Over the seven game winning streak Strawberry has averaged 17.1 points and 4.7 rebounds. Despite the attention that Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe receive in some circles the fortunes of this team are tied to Strawberry. When the team struggled it was because Strawberry was struggling. Greivis Vasquez has emerged as a big time player but Strawberry's play has contributed to his ascendance as much as the freshman has helped Strawberry turn his season around. Stawberry's ability to get out in transition and finish as well as any player on the team has boosted Vasquez's assist numbers and, to his credit, the freshman is looking for DJ early and often. He has also served to calm the team in critical stretches when they were a little out of control by simply stopping the action and handing the ball back to Vasquez or Eric Hayes to run the offensive sets. I can't recall a Maryland player having the kind of turnaround in his season like Strawberry has had this year.

Mike Jones got himself more headlines by scoring 21 points on 8-14 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. It is an excellent sign of his maturation that Jones is scoring so consistently now. In the past Jones would explode for 15 points in a half and then contribute only handful the rest of the game. In his last few games he has shown an impressive ability to score in critical moments and without long droughts. In the last two games he has scored in each half 13, 12, 8 and 13 points. If he can continue this kind of production Maryland can make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. His consistent scoring can lift Maryland's offense up to the level needed to make a Final Four appearance, while the defense I think is already there.

The sign of the season award has to go to the one I saw yesterday. It said "There is a right way, a wrong way and then there is Ibekwe". It works on so many levels that it was a stroke of genius. Who says the Maryland students are only foul mouthed couch burners? Ibekwe's game has also progressed over the course of this winning streak. He isn't forcing as many shots and is playing with less thought to his own statistics than before when it seemed the weight of his NBA expectations were hampering his game and Maryland's success. He had several impressive hustle plays and showed an aggressiveness on offense, shown by his six offensive rebounds, to complement his shot blocking ability. His 14 points, 12 rebounds and 4 block performance was a fitting end to his career at Comcast Center.

James Gist had a quiet but deadly efficient game with 12 points and 9 rebounds. Gist seems to be deferring a bit to seniors Ibekwe and Jones the last few games, which is fine for now but if those two struggle during the post season Gist needs to be ready to reassert himself. His defense was also impressive as he added 3 blocks and 2 steals to his total. Gist is one of those players that might benefit from having a little more of a superstar mentality. Right now he is just doing everything that Maryland needs from him to keep winning.

Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes both had good games distributing the ball and it was a sign of Maryland's renewed strength that the team didn't need many points from the pair to win comfortably. It was nice to see Hayes bounce back from two poor games to finish with 6 points, 6 assists and nary a turnover.

Bambale Osby has returned to being the valuable bench player that he was at the beginning of the season. His renewed focus and intensity has helped Maryland dominate its opponents on the glass the last few games. Osby has lead the team in rebounding in two of the last three games in spite of being a reserve. His hustle and lunch pail mentality has helped to toughen up this group and outlast several opponents in recent weeks. Maryland's 47-31 rebounding advantage was another example of that aggressive spirit he brings to the team. During the winning streak Maryland has a rebound margin of +32 which has not only helped to improve the defense but has allowed the Terps to get out in transition for some easy points. If you are looking for a hidden reason why Maryland has turned their season around that may be it.

The victory over NC State capped what has been one of the most memorable late season runs by a Maryland team in many years. With the recent NIT seasons looming over this group, the overwhelmingly negative media and Internet message boards, and historical adversity (no ACC team has ever come back from such a deep early season hole to post a winning record) it has to be a season to savor for Terrapin basketball fans.

I am pleased for the players that this year's senior day was so memorable. Now they can go into the ACC tournament knowing they have March Madness waiting for them.

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