COLLEGE PARK -- After playing 12 consecutive games against the rough-and-tumble Atlantic Coast Conference, Maryland figured to roll over nonconference and neighboring Loyola College last night.
Instead, the Terps encountered a surprising bump in the road. Loyola surrendered the game's first 11 points, then staged an unlikely rally to take a 20-19 lead midway through the first half.
The Terps reawakened to take a 43-33 halftime lead, and in the second half, Maryland's two constants -- grinding, pressure defense and freshman center Joe Smith -- took over, along with guard Johnny Rhodes, whose hot shooting helped Maryland pull away to a 94-71 victory before the sixth consecutive sellout crowd at Cole Field House.
The Terps (15-7, 7-5) return to the ACC trenches at N.C. State on Wednesday, the first of four conference games to conclude the regular season. Last night's exercise against Loyola (12-11, 5-7) hardly qualified as a day at the beach.
"Who's to say that Loyola is a breather? Give them credit. They've won 12 games already and they only won two games last year," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "What I liked about tonight is we got off to a good start, and Loyola still made us play. It's important for us to win a game like this."
The Greyhounds refused to fold early. They erased their early deficit with pressing defense that forced 25 turnovers and tenacity on the boards, out-rebounding the Terps at the offensive end, 16-6.
But the Greyhounds, hurt by the foul trouble of senior forward Michael Reese (18 points), wore down against the taller, deeper, more athletic Terps in the second half.
Maryland wasted no time asserting its dominance after halftime, using its full-court press to open with an 8-0 run and take a 51-33 lead after one minute. The Terps remained in control after that, never leading by fewer than 14 points.
"Our kids played hard for 40 minutes, but I thought we ran out of gas at some crucial junctures. The most crucial point was at the beginning of the second half," said Loyola's first-year coach Skip Prosser, whose team has rebounded from a 2-25 disaster to become a factor in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
"We didn't come down here to give them a game. We came here to win the game. Our biggest problem is consistency. We play well for 10 minutes, then not so well for three minutes, and those minutes really hurt us. Tonight, we also got beat by some pretty good players."
Once again, Smith led the pack. He scored 24 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked six shots, while playing a major factor in Loyola forward B. J. Pendleton's scoreless night. It was Smith's sixth straight double-double, and he moved into second place on the all-time scoring and rebounding list for Maryland freshmen.
"They are a tough team. Every time we went up, they battled back," Smith said. "Our mistake was we thought the game was over [after the 11-0 start].
Rhodes, meanwhile, stepped up with a career night, scoring 19 points in the second half -- including 4-for-5 shooting from three-point range -- to finish with a career-high 22.
Point guard Duane Simpkins finished with 14 points and seven assists, and forward Exree Hipp scored 13 points.
Senior point guard Tracy Bergan (18 points) shared the Loyola scoring lead with Reese. Bergan added five assists.