COLLEGE PARK - They were quicker, more aggressive, more inspired, and the Maryland Terrapins were not about to let their precious home-court advantage go to waste.
No. 5 Maryland made a memorable, early-season statement at sold-out Cole Field House last night by taking control of No. 2 Illinois in the first half, leading for the final 30 minutes, and wearing out the Fighting Illini, 76-63, in the opening game of the third ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
In what was their most impressive effort of a young season, Maryland (4-1) won its fourth straight game by handing the Fighting Illini (5-1) their first loss, and the Terps did it the way they love to do it best - with a grinding, attacking, half-court defense setting the tone.
Maryland looked like a team that had thought long and hard about the way it lost to Illinois a year ago in the Maui Invitational. Last night, while beating the Fighting Illini for the third time in four games over four years, the Terps were not about to be pushed around on the boards, and their guards refused to allow a fine Illinois backcourt to dictate the action.
The surprisingly easy victory - over an Illinois squad that was three nights removed from three games in three days in the Las Vegas Invitational - started with Terps guards Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, who thoroughly outplayed the Fighting Illini duo of Frank Williams and Cory Bradford.
Dixon scored a game-high 25 points, adding five rebounds and two steals. He also put the clamps on Bradford, who shot 4-for-14 and finished with eight points. Blake scored 10 points and added nine assists and a career-high four blocked shots, while harassing Williams to the tune of 3-for-16 shooting and 10 points. That had much to do with the Terps leading by as many as 20 points early in the second half.
"Teams are coming after us this year, and we have to go out there and give a great effort each and every night," Dixon said. "We showed people tonight that we want to win big games. It sends a message to everybody to watch out for Maryland. And me and Blake want to be considered one of the best backcourts in the country."
How impressive were the Terps? They got a combined seven points out of their starting frontcourt of Lonny Baxter and Tahj Holden, both of whom fouled out. And it didn't matter, since 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Chris Wilcox came off the bench and was far too much for Illinois to handle. Mixing in an assortment of slams, baby hook shots and short jumpers, Wilcox burned Illinois with a career-high 19 points and added six rebounds and two blocked shots.
"I love being the spark off the bench," Wilcox said. "I can see a lot of things out there on the court, and when I get out there, I know what to do."
Maryland coach Gary Williams, who countered Illinois' three-guard alignment effectively and won that battle because reserve guard Drew Nicholas (season-high 12 points) played his best game of the season, said it all started with defense. And the clinic started after Illinois had taken a 17-10 lead. When the night was done, the Fighting Illini had shot just 36.7 percent from the field.
"Defensively, when we look at a team as good as Illinois, we look for a way to shut them down," said Williams, whose Terps maintained the nation's longest nonconference home-court winning streak at 80.
"When you look at their scoring and what they did last year in terms of balance, you can't just take away Bradford or Williams and say we have them stopped. Team defense starts with each player stopping their man, like on the playground. We depended on our ability to play head-up, man-to-man defense. We really worked hard tonight."
Although they got out-rebounded, 42-38, the Terps - who were beaten by 18 rebounds a year ago by Illinois - dominated the boards while they were taking control in the middle of the game. They tossed people to the floor, ran through people to get to loose balls, and made the Fighting Illini look slow for much of the evening.
And only some glaring free-throw shooting problems in the second half kept this from being a runaway Maryland victory. After falling behind early, 17-10, Maryland outscored Illinois 31-12 over the final 13 minutes of the half to take a 41-29 lead at halftime.
Wilcox and Nicholas combined for 17 points in the first half and fueled the turnaround. Dixon then made a three-pointer, a short jumper and a layup after his own steal, as the Terps opened the second half with a 10-2 run to take a 51-31 lead.
During a stretch in the middle of the second half, Maryland missed six of nine foul shots, while the Fighting Illini, behind Bradford and Damir Krupalija (10 points), crept to within eight points twice. But after Maryland's lead slipped to 66-58 with 2:56 left, the Terps regrouped. Wilcox started a clinching run with five consecutive points to make it 71-58, and Maryland was never threatened.
"Wilcox just owned us inside. I think he's great," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "They've got a really good team. We've got a long ways to go before we become a good team."
Illinois Min FG FT Reb A F Pt
Cook 22 3-5 1-2 7 0 5 8
Harrington 20 2-3 0-0 0 1 1 6
Archibald 29 3-6 2-4 10 3 4 8
Bradford 33 4-14 0-0 3 2 2 8
Williams 34 3-16 3-4 4 1 2 10
Melton 2 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0
Head 10 1-2 0-0 1 1 1 2
Ferguson 18 2-6 7-8 3 0 4 11
Howard 1 0-0 0-0 0 0 1 0
Krupalija 27 4-7 1-2 8 3 1 10
Powell 1 0-0 0-0 0 0 1 0
Smith 3 0-1 0-0 0 0 0 0
Totals 200 22-60 14-20 36 11 22 63
Percentages: FG-.367, FT-.700. 3-point goals: 5-18, .278 (Cook 1-1, Harrington 2-3, Bradford 0-5, Williams 1-5, Head 0-1, Ferguson 0-1, Krupalija 1-2). Team rebounds: 6. Blocked shots: 3 (Archibald 2, Cook). Turnovers: 15 (Archibald 4, Cook 3, Harrington 3, Krupalija 2, Bradford,Ferguson, Williams). Steals: 5 (Bradford 2, Ferguson 2, Williams).
Maryland Min FG FT Reb A F Pt
Mouton 24 1-3 0-0 3 2 3 3
Holden 29 1-4 0-0 6 3 5 2
Baxter 18 2-7 1-4 5 1 5 5
Dixon 35 9-19 5-6 5 1 1 25
Blake 36 3-7 2-4 4 9 2 10
Nicholas 26 5-8 1-2 4 1 1 12
Randle 7 0-2 0-0 2 0 1 0
Wilcox 25 8-13 3-8 6 1 1 19
Totals 200 29-63 12-24 35 18 19 76
Percentages: FG-.460, FT-.500. 3-point goals: 6-16, .375 (Mouton 1-1, Holden 0-2, Dixon 2-8, Blake 2-3, Nicholas 1-2). Team rebounds: 3. Blocked shots: 10 (Blake 4, Wilcox 2, Holden, Baxter, Dixon, Nicholas). Turnovers: 10 (Blake 4, Wilcox 2, Dixon, Holden, Mouton, Nicholas). Steals: 6 (Dixon 2, Holden 2, Blake, Mouton).
Illinois 29 34 - 63
Maryland 41 35 - 76
A: 14,500. Officials: Mike Wood, Frank Scagliotta, John Clougherty
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