ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands – It seemed the next logical step for the Maryland men’s basketball team to win this way. The Terrapins had overcome slow starts in blowout wins over Abilene Christian and Marist, and were doomed by them in losses to Connecticut and Oregon State. “We haven’t had a game where we’ve had a lead and we’ve had to protect it,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “This was our first possession game where we’ve had a lead, so there was a lot of teaching going on during that time.”
Aside from falling behind 7-0 during the early minutes on Sunday night, the Terrapins (3-2) were engaged from start to finish, delivering their most complete effort of the young season in an 80-66 win over Northern Iowa. Four players scored at least 16 points and only one committed multiple turnovers. The reward? A trip to the Paradise Jam championship game on Monday night, with a chance to officially excise the bitterness that came from their slow starts stateside.
“I think it was a really good game for us,” said Dez Wells, who scored 16 points and handed out six assists. “We kept our turnovers down, we executed and we defended. Probably one of the best games we defended in this year. We just want to build off that. It’s close to the most complete game that we will play this year. We have alto more games left. We’re looking to close this out tomorrow night.”
The Terps immediately returned to their beachfront hotel for a group ice bath, knowing less than 24 hours remained until they face either Providence or La Salle. But they reveled in the rout, knowing a full defensive effort was necessary to overcome the sharpshooting Panthers, who were just 24.1 percent on three-pointers for the game.
Maryland similarly struggled from deep before intermission, missing all eight three-pointers and leading just 33-30. Northern Iowa kept pace until Charles Mitchell tied up Seth Tuttle for a jump ball and Varun Ram drew an offensive foul, those turnovers bracketed on the other end by three-pointers from Jake Layman (19 points) and Evan Smotrycz (20 points).
For a team that needed a sobering, revealing film session after allowing 90 points to Oregon State, the Terps have looked like a changed defensive group here. Nick Faust (17 points) twice turned steals into dunks. Tuttle scored a team-high 19 points, but center Shaq Cleare made him attempt 17 shots to do it, and Ram played 11 strong minutes, again serving as the hounding pest Maryland needs in reserve.
“We talked about it before the game,” Turgeon said. “We had no chance unless we played that way. We knew it. Our guys stepped up tonight. They were ready to play. Our defense is at another level, and that gives you a chance … I thought we played smart defensively. We know, for the most part, where shooters were and where non-shooters were. For a one-day scout it’s pretty good. All in all, a really good night for this early in the year.”
It got better as the Terps’ lead ballooned midway through the second half. Smotrycz rolled into the left corner and swished a three-pointer. Freshman Roddy Peters scooped and up-and-under layup, drawing the foul and sinking the free throw. When Northern Iowa sparked another mini-run, cutting it to 61-59, Layman flushed an and-one dunk and Smotrycz tapped in a layup off Northern Iowa’s 13th of 14 giveaways. Consider the lead officially protected.
“I think if we get clicking like that and we’re playing hard, we’re tough to beat,” Smotrycz said.
Now Maryland can run its winning streak to three games against whichever team emerges from Sunday’s late-night semifinal. The Terps spent all evening experiencing new ways to win, and here comes another test: Tipping off at 11 p.m. local time, one hour ahead of the East Coast.
“Tomorrow night’s huge for us,” Turgeon said. “We’ve put ourselves a little bit behind the eight ball … The good thing is we need the time to recover. It’s going to be a long day.”