College Park -- Before the basketball season began, Maryland junior forward Ekene Ibekwe made a bet.
He and his high school coach guessed how many double doubles Ibekwe would rack up this season. Closest one wins and the loser has to buy dinner.
Turned out to be a smart bet for the coach.
"[Ekene] would rather play basketball," his father, Augustine, said, "than eat food."
In addition to his love for the game, Ibekwe has the rare combination of flexibility and quickness for his lanky 6-foot-9 frame. He has strengthened Maryland's interior defense because of his ability to block shots, but for as long as he has played, Ibekwe has struggled to stay out of foul trouble.
Maryland coach Gary Williams said he has been trying to convince Ibekwe of his potential, but it wasn't until the second half against Virginia on Tuesday night that the California native truly flourished against a conference opponent.
Ibekwe finished with 14 points and a career-high 15 rebounds - including 10 in the second half.
"You keep telling him how good he is," Williams said, "and what he's capable of doing."
In what was probably his biggest contribution of the season, Ibekwe earned his third double double to lead the Terps to a come-from-behind 76-65 win over Virginia. It was the most noteworthy of the three, though, because the others were achieved in nonconference wins against American and Delaware State.
The Terps had fallen behind by as many as 14 points in the first half against Virginia, but the game was tied at 60 with 3:09 remaining. Ibekwe scored four points, grabbed two rebounds and made one block in a 13-0 run.
The Terps improved to 15-7 overall and 5-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It's his physical style of play that earned Ibekwe a spot on the Nigerian national team, where he can represent the country his parents are from. This past summer, Ibekwe spent two weeks in Algiers, where he played in the International Federation of Basketball's Africa championship and reunited with several family members.
His team, the D'Tigers, finished in third place and qualified for the FIBA world championships, which will be held Aug. 19-Sept. 3 in Japan. The event is played every four years.
"Basketball means a whole lot to me," said Ibekwe, who leads Maryland with an average of 6.6 rebounds and is second behind sophomore James Gist with 28 blocks. "It's a big thing in my family. It's something I grew up doing just to have fun but it's turned into a love.
"You love the game, you love to play, you love the camaraderie of the team, the locker room - just being in that type of atmosphere. I want to do it all my life, play ball."
The most different aspect of the overseas game, Ibekwe said, is exactly what gets him into trouble in America.
"International ball is real physical," said Ibekwe, who was deemed the "Nigerian Nightmare" on the youth basketball courts where he grew up in Carson, Calif. "There are a lot of things that wouldn't get called here. There are a lot of things that get overseen."
Things that aren't missed in the ACC. Ibekwe picked up his fourth foul with 15 minutes remaining in the last-minute, Jan. 15 win over Wake Forest. In the Terps' win over Virginia Tech, he fouled out with 1:48 left. Four fouls were also called against Ibekwe at Georgia Tech and Temple.
"He's got to stay out of foul trouble, but he's got to be aggressive," Williams said. "I think it's more important that he's aggressive.
"He gets a lot of fouls because he puts his hands on people, where you're not really stopping anybody. It's just a habit," the coach said. "You put your hands out there to check somebody or whatever. Certain guys get called for things. Other guys don't get called for maybe the same things. That's true any season I've ever coached. Hopefully we'll get Ekene where he's not in foul trouble and he can stay on the court as many minutes as we need him."
Ibekwe improved his game last summer in part by spending some time with Andy Enfield, a former player at Johns Hopkins and one of the NBA's top shooting consultants in the offseason. Enfield said Ibekwe had two flaws in his shot - bringing the ball too far to the left of his body, and releasing it from too far behind his head.
"He's working like crazy and he's done a great job," Enfield said. "It's certainly helped his accuracy. I can tell a big difference. However, my recommendation to him is to keep working and he can become even better."
Ibekwe is the Terps' third-leading scorer, averaging 11 points a game. It's an improvement from last season's 8.4 points and 40.9 percent shooting.
Against Virginia, he said, "There was an obligation for him to rebound."
"We've been down the past couple of days," Ibekwe said, referring to the team's previous three-game losing streak. "We need to know that all we have is each other, and if we go hard like that, then we'll be all right." firstname.lastname@example.org