In a tournament loaded with Top 25 talent, unranked Maryland is poised to be the last team standing by the end of the weekend.
After knocking off one Top 10 team, the Terrapins hope to take down another when they meet No. 9 Gonzaga in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic on Friday night at the Milk House in Orlando.
Joining Wichita State as the only schools in the eight-team field not to have received a vote in the most recent AP Poll, Maryland (4-0) played above its perception in an 80-62 upset of No. 5 Michigan State in first round play Thursday.
It could have been some inspirational pregame words from coach Gary Williams that motivated the Terps to avoid a third straight loss to a Top 10-ranked opponent.
“Coach told us in the locker room, ‘Let’s go out and win this tournament,’” said leading scorer Greivis Vasquez, who had 17 points. “That fired us up.”
Maryland, trying to open 5-0 for the second time in three seasons, will face Gonzaga (3-0), which didn’t have an easy time in an 83-71 victory over Oklahoma State to conclude Thursday’s tournament slate.
The winner of this contest will face either No. 12 Tennessee or 21st-ranked Georgetown in Sunday night’s championship game.
Maryland and Gonzaga meet for the first time since the then-eighth-ranked Bulldogs beat the No. 23 Terps’ 88-76 during the 2005 Maui Invitational.
Jeremy Pargo had 11 points and seven assists as a freshman for Gonzaga in that contest and finished with 15, seven assists and five rebounds Thursday. Micah Downs led the way with 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Bulldogs to make up for the combined 18 points and 10 rebounds from star forwards Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt.
Pargo, the reigning West Coast Conference player of the year, contributed to a 9-0 run with less than five minutes remaining to help Gonzaga take control of a close game. He is averaging just 9.0 points, but 8.3 assists per game this season.
The Bulldogs held Oklahoma State to 37.3 percent shooting while outscoring the Cowboys 47-34 in the final 20 minutes.
“The coaches have faith that the guys they’ve got out there are going to toughen up, dial it in and execute when we need to get buckets,” said Downs, who had 11 points in the second half. “I felt like everybody did a really good job of that.”
Gonzaga could need another solid overall defensive effort against Maryland, which shot 49.1 percent and outscored the Spartans 34-20 in the paint.
However, it was the Terps’ defense that ultimately made the difference, forcing Michigan State to go 2-for-9 from 3-point range and commit 15 turnovers. Maryland led by as many as 18 with 5 minutes left.
“That’s as good as any team I’ve coached has played with a lead,” said Williams, whose team is holding opponents to 20.0 percent (12-for-60) from beyond the arc. “We didn’t take bad shots, didn’t lose focus.”
Off to a strong start, the 6-foot-6 Vasquez leads a core group from last season’s 19-15 team that upset No. 1 North Carolina in January. Recovering from offseason ankle surgery, Vasquez is averaging 21.0 points on the season.