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McCray turns up energy as Terps leader


COLLEGE PARK - Normally, Shirleeta McCray would have used the time to congratulate her son on everything that he had just done well and remind him about all the things that he could have done better. The conversation would have ended with her telling Chris McCray how proud she was that he was chasing his dream.

But this time it was different. Shirleeta McCray detected a frustration in her son's mellow voice that she had never heard.

A little over an hour earlier last February inside Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, a place that has produced so much misery for visitors, McCray first lost his concentration and then his cool. On an inbounds play after a timeout, he didn't pay attention to the shot clock, which expired with him still holding the ball.

Maryland coach Gary Williams hollered, and McCray yelled back.

"It hurt me to my heart for the simple fact that I heard him curse and I've never heard that," said Shirleeta McCray. "It was just terrible. It's the only time I've seen him like that in his 15 years of playing basketball."

McCray's lowest point at Maryland became a turning point. McCray met with Williams in his office the next morning and the coach, never mentioning the incident, urged the guard to be more aggressive.

In the Terps' next game, McCray, who had started the previous 23, came off the bench to score 14 points against Clemson, followed by an 18-point outing against Wake Forest four days later. McCray's career high of 20 points came about a week and a half later against Virginia.

Entering today's game against UNC-Asheville at Comcast Center, McCray, a 6-foot-5 junior guard, is second on the team in scoring (14.2 ppg) and steals (2.2) and tied for third in assists (2.3). He's also shooting 60.8 percent from the field and is 16-for-16 from the foul line.

In the 15 games since the incident with Williams, McCray's scoring average has jumped four points to 13.9.

"It definitely helped me," McCray said of the meeting with Williams. "Before that, me and Coach just talked about basketball, but we never really sat down and talked. As a player, you want that bond with your coach. When he tells you specifically what he wants and needs you to do, you just want to go out there and do it."

There are still times when Williams wants McCray to be more aggressive. In the Terps' 101-92 loss to George Washington last Sunday, McCray took only seven shots and was essentially the only Terp to play who wasn't in double figures - Mike Jones had no points, but he played less than a minute.

"He's really been solid," said Williams, who acknowledged that the Terps are working on getting the ball more to McCray. "I think he's matured and he's stronger. I expect him to be a real confident player for us."

At Fairmont Heights High in Prince George's County, confidence was no problem for McCray, the school's all-time leader in points (1,970) and three-pointers (197). He averaged 26.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.7 steals a game in his senior season.

"I just was a scorer," said McCray, 20, who despite his mother's wishes for him to go away to college, chose his "dream school" Maryland over Florida State and Michigan. "I had a scorer's mentality."

That mentality was missing once he arrived in College Park, just 25 minutes from his mother's Capitol Heights home. As a freshman, he showed early glimpses, but his production - and his minutes - eventually declined.

Even before his on-court meltdown last season, McCray was too passive at times. At one point last year, ex-Terps star Juan Dixon, a player McCray idolized, called to encourage McCray to be more aggressive.

"Chris was always trying to please everybody and I think the expectations were just too high," said Shirleeta McCray. "It's a different level and he had to get that confidence. Now, I see it."

McCray spent nearly the entire summer on campus, practicing his jumper in an otherwise quiet Comcast Center, and working countless hours in the weight room with Terps strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald.

He arrived in College Park as a wiry 165-pounder, but he's now up to 192. He's also carrying more responsibility. Before the start of the season, the Maryland players voted McCray and senior Mike Grinnon as team captains.

When emotional point guard John Gilchrist spiked a water bottle last month during an exhibition game against Carleton, it was McCray who wrapped his arm around him and calmed him down. After a Nov. 30 loss at Wisconsin, McCray was the first Terp to come off the bench to pick up Gilchrist, who had fallen to the floor devastated, holding his head.

"That's your teammate," McCray said. "You can't just leave a guy out there on the floor. ... I'm not the most vocal guy, but I speak my mind. I'll talk when I have to."

On short academic breaks, McCray often invites sophomores Ekene Ibekwe and D.J. Strawberry, who are both from California and can't get home as easily, to his mother's house. Shirleeta McCray has become a team mother of sorts, hosting players and occasionally coming to her son's on-campus apartment to cook for him and his friends and teammates.

"Chris is the guy that tries to get everybody together," Ibekwe said. "That's why he's a leader."

Because the Terps were in Springfield, Mass., on Thanksgiving weekend to play in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic, Shirleeta McCray brought all the components of a Thanksgiving feast to her son's apartment a week earlier. McCray's teammates and friends were in and out, but Chris asked his mother to make a plate for everyone.

McCray downplayed his leadership role, as he did the suggestion made by one anonymous Atlantic Coast Conference assistant coach, who said in a preseason publication that McCray might be the most underrated player in the league.

"If you win, all the accolades come with it," McCray said. "All it's about is winning. If I have to be the one to be quiet and get my quiet points and my quiet steals, that's what I'll do."

Maryland today

Matchup: No. 23 Maryland (4-2) vs. North Carolina-Asheville (1-4)

Site: Comcast Center, College Park

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

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