As the Maryland basketball team’s second-half shots kept meeting iron more often than striking nylon, its offense lagging thanks to a combination of missed free throws and turnovers, Coach Mark Turgeon marched the Verizon Center sideline and screamed himself hoarse with the same refrain.
“Keep guarding. Keep guarding.”
These Terrapins can weather 19 turnovers, 16 missed free throws and nine errant three-pointers so long as they play team defense, locking down the perimeter with Alex Len patrolling the paint. Maryland feeds off its defense, its most electrifying sequences a deft combination of picked passes and soaring dunks in transition. Turgeon’s old-school nature focused on defense and rebounding. Do those, and the offense will come.
And so after a 69-62 win Sunday afternoon over George Mason at the Verizon Center, Turgeon could look up and down his folded box score, glancing at the charts littered with statistical anomalies, and confidently proclaim that all 10 Terrapins played well defensively.
“The game didn’t go the way we wanted it to go today. But it’s going to help us,” Turgeon said. “That’s comforting. That wasn’t the case 10 days ago. I can look at this sheet and know guys have really grown up defensively and are dialed in.”
George Mason got 17 points apiece from the hot-shooting Sherrod Wright and Patrick Holloway, but fizzled down the stretch as Maryland mustered just enough juice from the free-throw line to hang on. Other than Wright and Holloway, the Patriots made just 10 field goals and shot 21.3 percent from the field. Granted, the Terps shot 34.4 percent without Dez Wells, who set a new career high with 25 points on 11-for-17 shooting.
The absurd rebounding margin has been there all season as Maryland has surged to a six-game winning streak since the opening loss to Kentucky, but by all accounts these Terps have improved leaps and bounds on defense as well.
“We’re feeling pretty comfortable right now, learning a lot about each other,” Len said. “We’re playing more as a team. Young guys have grown a lot from two months ago until now. We’re playing great defense as a team, helping out. It’s good for us. Everybody goes on the boards.”
Speaking to media members Saturday afternoon, Wells relayed a challenge. After watching YouTube videos of Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, scrutinizing their defensive prowess, the dynamic sophomore has a new goal.
“I do want to guard the best player every game,” he said. “If you really take this game seriously, you want to be really, really good, you have to value the ball and value defense. You have to take it seriously, get after it.
“Really this year, I want to step up and establish myself as one of the best defenders in the country.”
Maryland had struggled to cut off penetration throughout the season, often succumbing to dribble-handoffs and opposing guards breaking down along the perimeter, but the Terps forced the Patriots into contested jumpers throughout the second half, outrebounding their local rivals 49-34.
“I thought we guarded great,” Turgeon said. “Changed our ball-screen defense two or three defense, did a great job of showing on double screens and chasing double screens. The only thing is we had to help so much that it hurt our rebounding, they got some tips. But I’ll tell you what, if we didn’t foul on loose balls or turn it over, they had a really hard time scoring. We’re getting there. We put a lot into it. This early in the year, to play that well, it’s encouraging.”
During every timeout, Turgeon implored his young team to disperse into the secondary break, if a layup or wide-open three-pointer weren’t available. Maryland’s insistence on inside-out principles in the second half against Northwestern had the Terps pulling away for a 20-point win, but Sunday night it happened just once, according to Turgeon, as they came one turnover shy of tying their season-high.
“But they kept guarding,” Turgeon said, “so I put up with a lot of it.”