Ibekwe provides critical spark again
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Ekene Ibekwe walked off the Comcast Center court after shootaround Saturday afternoon and pronounced himself fit to play.
Forget about a cracked rib that had kept him out of the last two Maryland games.
|“||I feel good because we got the win. I might be sore in the morning, but I'm just happy we swept Duke. ”|
|— Maryland's Ekene Ibekwe|
"I'm playing," Ibekwe said. "I've got to play. This is Duke."
When Maryland coach Gary Williams heard Ibekwe's response about the importance of playing Saturday night versus last Tuesday, Williams asked, "why not Virginia Tech?"
Because Maryland was playing Duke and every Terp player, fan and coach seems to measure themselves against the Big Blue Machine from Durham.
Ibekwe was the difference in Maryland's first win over the Blue Devils this season, a stunning 75-66 finish in Cameron on Jan. 26.
He was arguably the elixir for the Terps again Saturday in the 99-92 overtime thriller. Ibekwe scored 11 points, including 5 of 7 free throws, five boards, two blocks and a steal in 17 minutes off the bench. Ibekwe converted an offensive putback with a layup and then hit a free throw to give the Terps an 88-86 lead with 40 seconds remaining. Duke freshman DeMarcus Nelson hit a layup to tie the game and send it into overtime.
Ibekwe converted 1 of 2 free throws for the first point in overtime and then came up with a steal to set the tone in the extra period.
"I told myself that I knew I had to play and help after I had been successful in the first Duke game," Ibekwe said. "I had to play."
Ibekwe said the rivalry with the Blue Devils and the adrenaline from the Comcast Center crowd made him forget about any pain from his cracked rib in his upper chest.
How sore was he after the game?
"I feel good because we got the win," Ibekwe said. "I might be sore in the morning, but I'm just happy we swept Duke."
Ibekwe, who was averaging nine points and 4.8 rebounds a game prior to missing the previous two games with the cracked rib, practiced for the first time Friday since Feb. 1.
But he didn't take any hits going to the basket. He was like the quarterback in practice with the red jersey and a hands-off approach.
"Once he practiced Friday, I knew we had to get him on the court against Duke," Williams said. "He presents a matchup problem because he's so long at 6-9 and he's so quick."
Williams said Ibekwe's hands in the paint have improved but he's "like a lot of players who want to face the basket all of the time. I told him if he gets around the rim then he can score."
"We were taking the ball inside 15 straight possessions and that's all we can do," Williams said. "We're not going to get into a shooting contest with them. Our defense is good enough to stop them a few times."
Maryland point guard John Gilchrist, who was crying like a newborn after the game because he was so emotionally spent, said Ibekwe showed his toughness by playing with a cracked rib.
"I made a joke about T.O. [Terrell Owens] that if he could do it, then [Ibekwe] could do it," Gilchrist said, comparing his teammate to the Eagles wide receiver playing in the Super Bowl last Sunday before he was deemed totally healed from a leg injury. "He put himself on the line for us."
And it helped get the Terps a sweep of their nemesis. But is that enough for the NCAA Tournament selection committee?
You would think so. Williams said the sweep of Duke looks awfully good but only if the Terps keep on winning. Maryland (15-7, 6-5 ACC) followed up the road win at Duke with a home win over Georgia Tech and then a stinker at Clemson. The Terps then lost in overtime at Miami last week, putting a must-win tag on a home game against Virginia Tech earlier in the week.
The Terps won that one and took out Duke on Saturday. Up next is NC State in Raleigh, which clipped the Terps here. Then it's a trip to Charlottesville to play Virginia before Clemson and North Carolina come calling. The regular season ends at Virginia Tech.
"We still have a lot of work to do," said Maryland junior Nik Caner-Medley. "Nothing is set in stone. We have to go on the road and create our own energy. That's been our weakness."
Duke completes a tough week after beating North Carolina at home Wednesday and then taking the gritty loss to the Terps. The defeat pushed the Blue Devils behind Wake Forest and North Carolina in the ACC standings. The Blue Devils have road games still to go at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and North Carolina and home games against Wake Forest and Miami.
Said Duke junior J.J. Redick, "This league will take you prisoner and make you stay a while."
And after a sweep of the Blue Devils, the Terps at least have the key to beating Duke that the rest of the ACC, save Wake Forest, still needs to figure out.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.