Maryland center Shaquille Cleare is aware of the criticism leveled against him from fans and media during the first two months of his sophomore year -- maybe to the point where it affected his play.
Cleare, who was used sparingly behind Alex Len as a freshman, had one of his more solid performances in Saturday’s 77-61 victory over Georgia Tech in Maryland’s Atlantic Coast Conference home opener at Comcast Center.
His numbers weren’t spectacular -- eight points, two rebounds and an assist in 19 minutes -- but his impact was apparent. He scored on his team’s first possession of the game, had a three-point play to start the second half and played great defense throughout.
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“Our post players played well, our post defense was really good. We had a post presence on offense for the first time [this season],” Terps coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. “We didn’t always finish, but we had a presence down there, we played inside-out, which is great.”
Cleare, fellow sophomore Charles Mitchell and junior transfer Jon Graham combined for 15 points and 15 rebounds, with Mitchell getting 11 rebounds. It helped that Georgia Tech played without sophomore power forward Robert Carter, who tore his meniscus last week.
Yellow Jackets center Daniel Miller, who had 16 points (12 of 12 on free throws) and nine rebounds in a win last year over the Terps in Atlanta, finished with seven points and four rebounds Saturday in 30 minutes.
A lot of it had to do with Cleare using his 6-foot-9, 265-pound body to keep the 6-11, 275-pound Miller in check.
“He got us going big time. He’s capable of doing that, he just needs to stay confident,” junior forward Evan Smotrycz said of Cleare. “He’s really tough to guard, he’s so big and strong. He was really moving Miller around, who’s a house down there.”
Turgeon started Cleare again because of his size and strength, after going with the 6-8, 220-pound Graham against North Carolina Center in the previous game and the 6-9, 240-pound freshman Damonte Dodd in his first career start against Tulsa.
“It’s hard for Shaq. Most of the time Shaq’s chasing around a 6-7 skinny guy, [but] tonight he got to bang on a big kid,” Turgeon said. “Think about last year, when Shaq played well, he was usually banging on a pretty big body. He loves hitting people. He was much more physical, he got his offense going. It really helped us.”
Cleare said: “I like physicality, it’s part of my game. I’m just out there playing hard. When I’m tired, I’m giving the tired signal. Coach told us going into the game that he was going to keep the bigs fresh, to wear their bigs down, that it’s going to be a big part of what we do in the ACC because ACC has a lot of big bodies this year.”
Cleare has been the only one of last year’s freshman class not to live up expectations. While Seth Allen and Jake Layman became a huge part of the team’s offense, and Mitchell often gave the Terps a big lift off the bench, Cleare languished.
Coming into Saturday’s game, Cleare was averaging 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds, a slight decrease from last season despite starting the first 12 games and playing a few more minutes (15.1) than he did as a freshman (12).
The old-school running hook that Cleare made to start the game even got his coach excited.
“I looked over to [assistant coach Scott] Spinelli and said, ‘Wow, that was big time,' ” Turgeon said.
When asked about where he learned that shot, Cleare smiled.
“I’ve got a lot of tricks in my bag,” he said. “They’re coming out one at a time. Can’t bring it out in one game.”