COLLEGE PARK - Faced with a virtual must-win situation, the Maryland Terrapins once again were a sloppy, disorganized group for lengthy stretches last night at Comcast Center. Thank goodness for them that the Clemson Tigers were the scheduled visitors.
On a night when sophomore shooting guard Chris McCray came off the bench for the first time this season and yielded to first-time starter D.J. Strawberry, the Terps stopped their first three-game losing streak in three years by continuing their dominance of Clemson with a 70-49 victory, before an announced capacity crowd of 17,950.
Maryland (14-10, 5-8), which probably needs to win seven conference games to qualify for its 11th consecutive NCAA tournament, went through its typical share of pain and anxiety, while securing a home victory it desperately had to have. It helped that the Terps were playing the only winless road team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Tigers provided Maryland with a huge assist, while losing its 13th straight to Maryland and its 49th in 57 trips to College Park. Clemson shot 31.4 percent, missed 17 of its first 19 shots and had 22 turnovers, while recording just six assists and scoring a season low in points.
Clemson was so bad it turned the ball over in the first half on back-to-back shot-clock violations, then followed up two possessions later by failing to get the ball across midcourt in the required 10 seconds, even though the Terps were dropping back.
But it wasn't until Maryland put together a late 12-0 run - with help from McCray, Strawberry, sophomore point guard John Gilchrist and freshman forward Ekene Ibekwe - that the Terps, their nervous fans and their admittedly uptight coach could relax.
"I was probably the tightest guy there before the game. But it was a good tight. You see everything very clear. I knew we had to win the game," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.
"This team is fragile. They hear all the [stuff] about losing three games. I told them we happen to play in the best league in the country. We're a good team. We don't get to play a team we can blow out by 50."
For a while, it seemed as if Maryland might actually enjoy a rout. The Terps put together an early 19-2 run by pressuring Clemson relentlessly and were cruising with a 24-7 lead 12 minutes into the affair. At that point, the Tigers (10-15, 3-11) were shooting 2-for-19 and had committed 10 turnovers.
But nothing comes easy for these Terps, who watched the lead shrink to 32-21 at halftime and were sitting with an uncomfortable 53-44 advantage with 6:44 left. Finally, the Terps, who endured a scoreless, seven-turnover night from sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley, put their foot down with 12 unanswered points and won for the fourth time in 11 games.
"You can't play not to lose. You can't nurse a lead. You have to build on a lead. We needed this," Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist, who finished with 19 points, six assists and five steals - all game highs - and was one of four Maryland players to score in double figures, made a huge three-pointer from the right wing to give the Terps a 57-44 lead with 5:37 left.
Strawberry, who had 15 points and five rebounds, wrapped a slam and a tip-in around a 15-footer by McCray. He finished with 14 points and five rebounds and made six of eight shots. Ibekwe (six points, 10 rebounds) completed the run with two free throws that gave the Terps a 65-44 lead with 2:49 to go.
It was an ugly game - the Terps had 17 turnovers and missed half of their 20 foul shots - played before a dispassionate crowd that did not fill the seats, noticeably in the student section. But the Terps did shoot 51.9 percent, did make four of eight three-point attempts, and did get a revival from McCray.
Early in the second half of Sunday's 86-63 loss at Duke, McCray traded choice words with Williams and was benched for nearly the game's final 17 minutes. McCray met privately with Williams on Monday.
"Everybody wanted to win, and everybody got frustrated, but we talked about it," McCray said. "I kind of lost my place [at Duke]. I'm just glad he didn't suspend me. Everybody just wanted it tonight. Everybody was having fun out there."
Said Williams: "I like guys to compete. I've never minded [a confrontation with a player], as long as you can talk to the guy the next day. It's a long season, and I coach a certain way. I thought Chris played hard. It looked like coming off the bench helped him. He really wanted the ball. ... I liked the way he scored tonight."
McCray made his only three-point attempt, was deadly from medium range, drove hard to the basket, and even dribbled through the Clemson defense in the first half for a dunk.
After Maryland avoided its first four-game skid since 1994 and kept its tournament hopes alive, Strawberry was glad to see order restored on the court and in the locker room. Maryland probably needs to win two of its last three games to reach the NCAAs. On Saturday, No. 11 Wake Forest comes to town.
"We just played more relaxed tonight," said Strawberry, who shot 7-for-9, mainly on transition layups. "I just told Chris, whether he's starting or not, we're going to need him and his production tonight. I don't think we would have won without him. We need to have that same intensity on Saturday and for the rest of our games."