ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands – His face and feet were colored strawberry red but Evan Smotrycz wore a broad smile beneath his Paradise Jam championship hat and the single strand of nylon net sticking like a pencil from his ear. “Man, I love it,” he said. “I love winning. I love winning stuff.”
As 2 a.m. came and went, the Terrapins (4-2) rejoiced in their 56-52 victory over Providence, at once handing the Friars (6-1) their first loss this season and ensuring a triumphant return home. For a Maryland men’s basketball team that flew to this tropical island scrambling to reinvent itself and anxious for positivity, simply winning this early-season tournament was enough.
So Dez Wells, the tournament MVP, hugged Charles Mitchell as Jake Layman sank one of two free throws to clinch the game. His teammates, including injured point guard Seth Allen, stormed the court when the final buzzer sounded, quickly assembling for pictures and climbing a ladder to snip the net. Local fans demanded to join the revelry and freshman Damonte Dodd, clutching a 2013 championship plaque which resembled a steel drum colored gold, told anyone who would listen, “We the Temptations. We just won a platinum record.”
Maryland certainly made things interesting in the process. Despite holding Providence to 27.1 percent shooting and 18.8 percent on three-pointers, the Terps nearly lost a 19-point lead as the Friars whittled the deficit to two with 31 seconds remaining. It was initially one point, until the referees reviewed Bryce Cotton’s deep swish and ruled his foot had stepped on the arc. After Wells sank two free throws nine seconds later, the game was over.
“Winning three in a row at any point is big, especially in a tournament setting, three games in four days is tough to do,” said Smotrycz, who matched Wells with a team-high 13 points. “Just really proud of the way we fought.”
Fatigue from the Paradise Jam’s grueling schedule eventually set in for both teams, but Providence mustered enough to come close after midnight. Cotton finished with a game-high 19 points but took 17 shots to do it. Maryland, meanwhile, received a balanced scoring effort from Smotrycz, Wells, Mitchell’s nine points, Shaq Cleare’s seven points and six from Layman, the first time the sharpshooting sophomore had been held to single digits this season.
“Jake was exhausted,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Evan was done. Evan played 38 last night and 19 the first half. Dez was in foul trouble, thank god, so he had fresh legs and he was the guy we had to go to.”
Said Smotrycz: “In situations like this, it kind of goes out the window and you have to fight through it. I thought everyone did a good job with that.”
Until Mitchell made a reverse layup with 1:56 left, Wells had provided Maryland’s only two field goals after Varun Ram’s three-pointer put the Terps up, 44-25, before the under-12 media timeout. Winning the tournament and earning MVP honors — which came with a backpack and a basketball — didn’t quite atone for his buzzer-beating miss against Connecticut in the opener, Wells said, but he again played savior when Maryland needed him most.
“He made some big-time plays,” Turgeon said. “We were really struggling. We just could not score. We’ve got to get our low-post game better. Normally when you can’t make shots you go to your low-post and we couldn’t score in there either. We’ve got to figure it out. Maybe it’s posting our guards more. This was big for Dez.”
The mistakes were aplenty, the type the Terps will scrutinize during film sessions upon returning stateside, where Morgan State awaits after Thanksgiving on Friday. Cleare missed two close-range shots late in the game, his only field-goal attempts after halftime, and Nick Faust followed up arguably his best game in a Maryland uniform by shooting 1 for 8. As a team, Maryland made just 10 of 18 free-throw attempts, another lackluster day from the stripe.
But the Terps will also fly home a reinvented bunch, Turgeon said, turning from “a finesse team trying to outscore people to really guarding,” and defense once again helped catalyze them inside this university gym.
“My guys were really focused,” Turgeon said. “Right when the game ended last night, our guys were really determined that we were going to win this thing. Providence was a team that was probably getting votes, really close to being a top-25 team. We let some things slip by us. We had to take care of business for us.
“I didn’t feel good about us a week ago Sunday, but we had great practices. I knew we were going to play better. I didn’t know if we could do this. This is pretty big for us. Hopefully it’ll give us confidence moving forward.”