CLEMSON, S.C. - After playing a near-perfect game while taking Duke apart on Sunday, the Maryland Terrapins needed some time to get warm last night.
And once the No. 2 Terps found their stride after a sluggish, uneven first half at Clemson, it was lights out once again for one of the Atlantic Coast Conference doormats, and just another night of solid, winning basketball for the league leader.
Maryland wasted little time erasing a four-point halftime deficit, got another lift from senior guard Juan Dixon and a strong bench, took advantage of Clemson's foul trouble and increased its first-place lead in the ACC to a full game with an 84-68 victory before 8,500 at Littlejohn Coliseum.
The Terps (22-3, 12-1) won for the ninth straight time, have won 13 of their past 14, and are within one victory of the best start ever in school history.
On a night when Dixon and junior point guard Steve Blake achieved career milestones, the Terps battled themselves as much as a feisty opponent on a tough court. Maryland, which knocked Duke from the top ranking three days earlier, hit the floor on a down note that was fairly predictable.
The Terps struggled in the face of Clemson's zone defenses, often settling for quick shots that are unbecoming of Maryland, which lives by the extra pass and a grinding, pound-it-inside style. The Tigers, sparked by guards Edward Scott and Tony Stockman and swingman Jamar McKnight, used a 22-10 run down the stretch of the first half to take a 35-31 lead at halftime.
"I thought we were sluggish early. There's no excuse for that. We just were," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "You play at home against Duke, you don't have to worry about being up. It's not Clemson. It's whoever we play after a game like that."
Any thoughts of a shocking upset disappeared quickly after the break, as that other Maryland team - the one that has punched out opponents in the second half all year - left the locker room and sent Clemson (12-15, 3-11) to its 10th defeat in its past 11 games.
Led by Dixon, who scored 14 of his game-high 21 points in the second half, Maryland shot a blistering 63.3 percent in the half. Dixon added seven rebounds and six assists, and he became the first player in NCAA history to record 2,000 points, 300 steals and 200 three-point field goals.
"This is a tough place to play. We've struggled every year that I've played here, but we pulled it together and won by 16," Dixon said. "It's a long season, and we've got to find the energy from somewhere. We came here to get the win, no matter how we did it."
Nothing went right for the Tigers after intermission. Scott, their underrated point guard, left with a bruised knee and did not return for the game's final five minutes. Forwards Chris Hobbs and Sharrod Ford and center Ray Henderson were in foul trouble for much of the final 20 minutes.
That left Maryland's front line to do what it pleased, and the Terps smartly took the high-percentage shots in close and kicked the ball out to wide-open shooters as an alternative.
Senior center Lonny Baxter, who did not make a basket and took only three shots in the first half, finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks for his fourth straight double double. Sophomore forward Chris Wilcox, ineffective early, scored 11 of his 14 points after halftime and added three blocks. Reserve center Ryan Randle added five points and five rebounds in 11 strong minutes.
"We just realized we had to play a little harder in the second half. That's what it takes," said backup guard Drew Nicholas, who spelled Blake (seven points, nine assists) for stretches in the second half and finished with 12 points. "Once we did that, we were going to get control of the game."
It didn't take long for the Terps to snap out of their funk, as they opened the second half with an 18-8 run and made seven of their first nine shots to take a 49-43 lead with 14:40 left in the game. Wilcox and Dixon scored four points apiece during the spurt.
The Terps kept up the pressure by forcing a spate of turnovers, working the ball inside to Baxter and getting outstanding three-point shooting after struggling from beyond the arc.
Nicholas got Maryland going on an 11-0 run by hitting a 22-footer from the top of the key, giving the Terps a 55-49 lead with 11:48 left. Dixon, who shot impressively in the second half, followed with a 22-footer from the left corner. Dixon then hit another three from the right corner, making it 61-49 with 10:17 left.
Clemson coach Larry Shyatt called a timeout. At that point, the Terps had made 12 of 14 second-half shots, including 5-for-6 from three-point range. Baxter completed the run with an alley-oop jam, courtesy of Dixon, and with 9:48 left, the Tigers were behind 63-49 and effectively done.
In all, five players scored in double figures for the Terps, while Blake took over the career assists record at Maryland. He now has 658 assists. Byron Mouton added 13 points and six rebounds.
Stockman led Clemson with 19 points. Scott finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
"We didn't yield to their pressure. They just had too much for us in the second half," Shyatt said. "When you play a physical team like Maryland, you have to stay out of foul trouble. [Maryland] has a little bit of everything. They're good."
Next for Terps
Opponent: Wake Forest
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54, ESPN2/WBAL (1090 AM)