COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Shaquille Cleare hunkered down behind the table during the interview session…
Shaq 'Cleares' Out Tech
"How bout that running hook at the start of the game?" Turgeon said during the postgame press conference in the wake of Maryland's 77-61 demolition of the Yellow Jackets (9-5, 0-1 ACC). "I looked over at [Scott] Spinelli and said, ‘Wow, that was big time.' So I was so happy for Shaq. Good for him."
That early runner helped spur Maryland (10-5, 2-0 ACC) on a 12-2 run from which Tech never recovered. The Jackets did draw to within five points late during the first half, but the Terps pretty much led by double digits throughout, at one point stretching the advantage to 20.
"Georgia Tech makes you take jump shots, so that was big [for Cleare] to get all the way to the rim," Turgeon said. "It was a huge play."
Cleare, who ended up with eight points, two rebounds and an assist in 19 minutes, didn't want to take too much credit for the Terps' success Jan. 4. But he did admit the team needed that early inside bucket to "get [the offense] going."
It must have worked, because Maryland spread the floor and displayed more of a flow than they'd shown all year. The Terps ended up shooting 51.5 percent in the first half, 46.7 percent for the game and knocked down an NBA-like 52.6-percent of their 3-pointers (10 of 19). On top of that, the miscue-prone Terps ended up with a 16-to-6 assist-to-turnover ratio -- the best rate all year – with four of those dimes coming directly from the paint area.
"Coach told me to go in right away and be aggressive off the get-go," Cleare said. "It was big for the team. We needed to get the team going fast."
Not only did the Terps as a whole appreciate that early boost, but Cleare himself needed a positive start. The burly center had started the season's first dozen games, but he averaged just 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds, proving to be a liability at times. He showed little touch around the rim, picked up numerous silly fouls and looked slow at points defensively.
Though Turgeon stood by him, during the last two games the head coach started transfer Jonathan Graham against N.C. Central and before that freshman Damonte Dodd against Tulsa. Not to mention Cleare's classmate, Charles Mitchell, basically played starters' minutes coming off the bench.
"It's been a little rough," Cleare admitted. "Coach has been changing the starting lineup the last couple games, but that didn't really bother me. It just gives the other bigs more confidence in case you have to adjust.
"But 2013 is behind me now. It's ACC play and there are no more cupcakes. This is big-boy play. … I know in ACC play Coach is going to need me. This isn't the time to hang my head or anything. It's time to get better."
And better he's gotten, at least as far as practice is concerned. Cleare said he's been making progress getting to the rim faster, showing harder on ball screens, and even rolling more deftly on pick-and-roll plays, which allows him to see defenders quicker and make those aforementioned athletic plays.
"It's a new year, you know? I'm working hard in practice, staying positive when things aren't going my way, and I know things will fall into place," Cleare said. "I'm comfortable right now, and I'm going to continue to try and work on my game and my confidence."
The Georgia Tech matchup set up perfectly for a Cleare breakout. Although many questioned why Turgeon decided to reinsert him into the starting lineup, the head coach knew that Cleare responded better when pitted against, big, physical foes like the Yellow Jackets. Although Tech was missing powerful forward Robert Carter (torn meniscus), they still boasted 6-foot-11 center Daniel Miller, who was averaging more than eight rebounds per game.
"The thing with Shaq is most of the time he's chasing around a 6-7 skinny guy," Turgeon said. "Tonight he got to bang on a big kid. You think about last year, when Shaq played well he usually got to bang on a pretty big body.
"Our game has gone so small, it's hard for a guy like Shaq. But today was a good matchup and he loves hitting, he loves being physical. And he got his offense going. He was much more aggressive and got all the way to the rim. It was good. He really, really helped us."
Miller, for his part, ended up scoring just seven points on 2-of-7 from the field, while corralling only four boards. Cleare routinely fronted the Tech center, while maintaining inside position on the defensive glass.
"It was definitely easier; I don't like chasing around smaller guys," Cleare said. "I like physicality. Defense is one of my main things, and I take people scoring on me personally. So today it was just me and [Miller] one on one. Who is going to be toughest bull? That's the kind of matchup I like."
Cleare, though, wasn't the only Terps frontcourt presence Jan. 4. Mitchell led the team with 11 rebounds, including nine on the defensive end. Graham, meanwhile, only added two boards in 15 minutes, but he was tasked with guarding a smaller, quicker Yellow Jacket. He spent most of the game defending the baseline and elbow area – and doing a knock-up job, according to his coach.
"Our post defense was really good," Turgeon said. "What did Charles have, 11 rebounds? It seemed like Charles was getting every defensive rebound.
"Our whole thing was once [Robert] Carter got hurt is we were going to send four post players to their two post players and try to bang on them. So I thought Charles played hard defense, Shaq played hard defense and Jon Graham always plays hard defense. Jon can chase around the little guys some, and that was great to see him do that today."
Though Georgia Tech was obviously hurting without Carter, the conference's leading rebounder, on the boards, Tech still boasts plenty of players who hit the glass hard. The Jackets came in ranked fifth in the ACC in rebounds per game, and against UMD they still managed to out-board the Terps, 36-34. But considering Tech had out-rebounded every one of its opponents this year, Maryland did well to stay within two.
"For the most part we were able to limit them inside," said Maryland's Evan Smotrycz, who scored 14 points. "They have really good bigs, and Coach wanted a team effort rebounding, and we all did good on the boards. Chuck had 11 boards. The ball always kind of finds him. I don't know how he does it."
The Terps also ended up with 34 paint points to 32 for Tech. Cleare, Mitchell and Graham only combined for 15, and Mitchell made his share of mistakes, but Turgeon was pleased with their effort.
"We had a post presence for the first time. We didn't always finish, but we had a presence down there," the coach said. "We played inside-out, which is great."
That's a concept Turgeon harped on leading into the game. He said in order for Maryland to reach its potential offensively, they needed to work through the frontcourt.
During the Georgia Tech game, each of Mitchell, Cleare and Graham recorded one assist, and they made numerous other kick-out passes to the wing.
"Our big guys established presence form the jump of the game, from Shaq and the hook to coming out and drawing a foul in the next couple plays," said Nick Faust, who scored 16 points and knocked down four 3s, at least one coming off a Cleare feed. "So that was huge for us. It's always good to play inside-out to start a game; it opens up the whole court."
Faust wasn't the only one stroking the trey. Smotrycz hit 2-of-4 from deep, Jake Layman added a pair of 3s, and freshman point guard Seth Allen drilled 2-of-4 as well. All told, Maryland hit 10-of-19 3-pointers for a scintillating 52.6 percent.
"It's good to get that inside-out going because, as a shooter, if you're not forcing shots early you're more likely to make it. It's good to kind of let the game come to you," Smotrycz said. "We've got guys who can knock down shots, and when we have guys who can score and pass out of the paint, we're really tough to guard."
Now, the key is maintaining that level of play during the next 16 ACC games. Last year, recall, Maryland started January's conference schedule with a resounding victory against Virginia Tech, only to sputter the rest of the way. To avoid another pitfall, the onus is on the bigs to continue producing in the paint.
"I'd imagine Pittsburgh [Maryland's next foe] has some pretty good post players too, so we'll see. The [frontcourt is] going to have to keep it up," Turgeon said. "We didn't conquer the world or anything like that. But we're playing better, and it's a good feeling."
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