COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- With the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play a week away, Maryland coach Gary Williams had to be pleased with his team's preparation after a 96-80 romp over La Salle last night before a sellout crowd of 14,500.
It was only the second time in the past seven games that the ninth-ranked Terps (9-2) failed to score 100 points. But La Salle (5-2), which previously had lost only to then-eighth-ranked Arizona, was not considered a cream puff like recent nonconference foes Bucknell, Colgate, Towson State and Morgan State, who lost by an average of 50 points.
The Explorers, idle since Dec. 12, managed to make a game of it for little more than a half. But the Terps stepped up their defensive pressure, dominated the boards and shot 62 percent in the second half to quickly turn it into a mismatch.
After a tip-in by Kareem Townes pulled La Salle into a 45-45 tie, Maryland went on a 20-4 tear and was not threatened the last 12 minutes.
"They're a quality team," said point guard Duane Simpkins, one of six Terps in double figures with 14 points. "We can't be expected to blow out everyone in the first two minutes."
Junior forward Mario Lucas, who has developed into a key sixth man, scored a career-high 18 points -- seven during the key rally -- to go with eight rebounds in 19 minutes. Sophomore forward Keith Booth from Dunbar tied a career high with 18 points, making all but one of his eight field-goal attempts.
Perhaps most satisfying for Williams was the victory margin despite All-America center Joe Smith (18 points, nine rebounds) being limited to eight shots.
"Taking so few shots doesn't bother Joe," the coach said of his center, who hit 10 of 11 free throws. "If guys are looking for him, he'll kick it back outside. We know teams are going to sag on Joe down low, and he's willing to hit the open man."
All of his teammates benefited from Smith's unselfishness as Maryland recorded its 38th straight nonconference win at home. But Lucas, who hit all three of his three-point attempts, and Simpkins (3-for-6 on threes) were the main beneficiaries.
Said Williams: "Lucas has made starters like Exree Hipp and Johnny Rhodes accept him taking some of their minutes away because of how hard they saw him work to improve his game in the off-season."
Lucas, who spent long hours in the weight room and on the track, said, "There's a fine line between being just big and being big and strong. I'm a lot more confident this year."
Simpkins, who sparked the Terps' tournament drive last season, also has decided to be more bold after an inconsistent first month.
"I looked at tapes, and I could see I wasn't looking for my shot when I was open," said the DeMatha product. "I was hurting the team playing that way. I've got to be aggressive if we're going to win in the ACC."
Aggressiveness is just what coach Speedy Morris said his Explorers lacked in the second half.
"I was really disappointed of how we played that second half," Morris said. "We played like we were tired. They out-worked us and their defensive adjustments worked because we had too many breakdowns."
In the first half, Williams had the Terps concentrate on the Explorers' senior backcourt combination of Townes, who was averaging 24.3 points, and Paul Burke (14.0).
"Unfortunately, that strategy didn't work," said Williams. "We gambled and left [junior forward] Romaine Haywood open, and he burned us in the first half."
Haywood scored 15 of his game-high 26 points in the first half, forcing Williams to change his strategy.
La Salle, which shot 48 percent in the first half, managed to hit only 13 of 34 field-goal attempts in the second half while being harried by the Terps' traps. Townes and Burke were a combined 7-for-26.
The only suspense in the closing minutes was whether the Terps, who came into the game averaging a school-record 101.6 points, would again reach that magic figure.