COLLEGE PARK — Maryland swingman Cliff Tucker doesn't mind answering the question honestly. No, he concedes, he didn't always work as hard as he should have during the offseason on his jump shot. His game, since high school, has been about slashing to the basket, not spotting up on the perimeter. He didn't put in the work, so he didn't have the confidence to consistently knock down open looks.
That changed, however, before this season -- his final season in a Terps uniform. Tucker, a senior from El Paso, Texas, spent hours in the gym hoisting jumpers, never failing to take at least 500 a day. He couldn't do anything about seasons gone by and opportunities missed, but at least he could give himself the confidence to take advantage of whatever chances remain.
The difference in his game was apparent Sunday, as Tucker scored 16 points to help lead Maryland to a decisive and stress-free victory over Maine, 89-59, in front of an announced 13,041 at Comcast Center.
All Tucker's points came in the first half, when he hit four 3-pointers and helped the Terps build a 23-point halftime lead over the Black Bears. In fact, he scored eight of Maryland's first 10points. Tucker also energized the crowd with a steal and a fast-break dunk near the end of the half, one of four steals he had in the game.
If Tucker can combine his defense and athleticism with an improved jumper, he knows, he can be a key player in the Terps' rotation this season.
"Hard work pays off," Tucker said. "I shot a lot of shots over the summer. I shoot a lot before the game. I do a lot of the things I didn't do in years past. Last year, when I didn't shoot the ball well, I'd get frustrated. But now I just keep doing my routine. Today I was fortunate to make a lot of shots, and hopefully that will keep going the rest of the year."
Maryland coach Gary Williams said he has seen the difference in Tucker's game. This was the third straight game the senior has scored in double figures, the first time in his career that has happened.
"I've always felt that in basketball, you earn the right to have confidence," Williams said. "You can't just say, 'I'm a confident player.' Why are you confident? Well, because you put the time in. You can't have false confidence. There is a reason why you're confident, and it's because you work hard to get there."
The victory over the Black Bears (1-1) was the last chance for Maryland (3-0) to solidify its rotation and tighten its press defense before the Terps go marching into the lion's den of Madison Square Garden on Thursday for a game against Pittsburgh, the fifth-ranked team in the country, and one the following day against Illinois or Texas. It's still unclear what kind of team Williams has this season. Maryland cruised in its opener against Seattle University but needed a late rally and a late jumper by freshman guard Pe'Shon Howard to beat the College of Charleston by just a point.
"I think we certainly got a wake-up call against Charleston, both offensively and defensively," Williams said. "We need to play a certain way. We played better today. We'll get out there Thursday night, and we'll see how we do."
Maine tried to keep up with Maryland with hustle and timely outside shooting, but it was clear the Black Bears were no match for the Terps on the glass. Sophomore forward Jordan Williams looked like he was toying with Maine at times. At one point, he grabbed three offensive rebounds on the same possession -- two coming on his own misses -- before putting the ball in the basket. He recorded his fifth straight double double (dating to last season) with 20 points and 11 rebounds, the first Terrapin to accomplish that since Joe Smith in 1995.
"One of the players was kidding him at the end, saying he looked like Moses Malone," Gary Williams said. "Moses was famous for wanting to lead the league in rebounds, so when he'd have a layup with no one around, he'd miss it so he could get another rebound. Of course, half our guys don't know who Moses Malone was."
Jordan Williams said that's not entirely accurate. But he did acknowledge that he smiled at the comparison.
"I've heard of Moses Malone before," he said. "I just don't know much about him."
It wasn't just the starters who had their way with Maine. Maryland's bench scored 38 points, led by 14 from freshman guard Terrell Stoglin, and the Terps' defense held Maine to 28.6 percent shooting in the second half. The one Terrapin who couldn't seem to find a rhythm was junior guard Sean Mosley (St. Frances), who had zero points and fouled out in the closing minutes. But it hardly mattered. During one stretch, Maryland didn't have a field goal for six minutes but increased its lead from 22 points to 32 by making 14 straight free throws.
"I couldn't believe it when I looked up at the scoreboard," Jordan Williams said. "We were up by like 20-something, even though we hadn't been scoring. But that's why, free throws. Last game, we were terrible at the free-throw line, and Coach just said: 'You're a good free-throw shooting team. Just make the shots.' He didn't stress about it too much."
Gary Williams not stressing too much? That's not a statement anyone expected to hear this early in the season. But that might be indicative of the way the coach feels about this team, which is athletic enough to press for most of the game but is also showing the ability to score in the half-court offense. There is still a lot to work on, however.
"Nobody is where they want to be on Nov. 14," Williams said. "You have to keep improving. If you can't play in March, then it doesn't matter."