Happiness drenched the Maryland men’s basketball sideline like a wave as each player seemed to grin wider than the next. They had been so tense for so many days, worrying about a two-game losing streak turning into three and a season plummeting down the drain, that Wednesday night felt entirely new.
When a 74-66 win over Notre Dame was finally over and the two-game losing streak had been halted, Coach Mark Turgeon teed up the narrative by revealing his halftime speech. As he entered the locker room, as the boos followed him through the tunnel and down the Comcast Center hallway, Turgeon offered a pact to the Terrapins, who had again fallen behind early thanks to another miserable start.
“We’re going to smile,” Turgeon told his players, many of them still reeling from the 24-point bludgeoning absorbed by Florida State three days ago and the nine-point deficit they now faced. “We’re going to have fun. If you miss a shot, you can smile. It’s okay to miss a shot. And we’re just going to try to have fun.”
Ignoring the opening 20 minutes became easy amid the smiles and high-fives that followed. The postgame interviews were filled with jokes and positive vibes about the future. Maybe, Turgeon reasoned, the season could pivot on this moment, when he and his staff finally stopped nitpicking every mistake, erased the meticulous talking points from the white board and allowed the Terps to relish in the moment.
Had the reverse occurred — a brilliant first half followed by a cold, miserable second — it would have been considered an epic collapse, another dagger into the hearts of this struggling team. Instead, Dez Wells became a human bulldozer and scored a team-high 17 points. Instead, Maryland finally figured out how to defend and forced 17 turnovers from the Fighting Irish. Instead, Turgeon was popping around the sidelines like a jumping bean and waving his arms to the fans, some of whom were calling for his job days before.
“Oh yeah he was hyped wasn’t he?” center Shaq Cleare said. “I had never seen him like that. I was like coach’s going to wear his shoe down jumping around all day. He’s just an intense guy, great coach. He was really into the game. That’s just how he is. Gets so hyped, goes crazy, gets the crowd into it. It’s great for him. We did this one for him.”
Maybe Cleare and his teammates sensed the frustration directed at Turgeon, because they had already experienced so much themselves. By halftime, they had shot just 18.8 percent on three-pointers, chucking shot after shot against the Notre Dame zone. Forward Pat Connaughton had 15 points at that stage, including three three-pointers, and it brought back memories of both Florida State and Pittsburgh, when hot-shooting teams had the Terps folding quick.
Then the Irish began the second half with three turnovers in four possessions and took nearly seven minutes to score a point. Meanwhile point guard Seth Allen, making his first start this season on that healed left foot, stuck a layup and lofted a backdoor alley-oop to Wells. After Charles Mitchell ignited Comcast Center with two put-back layups, Allen gave Maryland the lead for good with a deep three-pointer.
“With the team we have, coming off two big losses in embarrassing fashion, this is what you really, really find out what kind of team you have,” Wells said. “We didn’t give up, we fought through the end and we competed. That’s all Coach Turgeon want to see from us is fight.”
The end wasn’t without drama. Mitchell fouled Austin Burgett on a four-point play and a horrible inbounds pass turned into an easy layup. Suddenly, Maryland’s lead was chopped to five points. But Nick Faust, suddenly a beacon of consistency with 13 points on 4 of 9 shooting, hit the game’s biggest shot with a corner three-pointer as the shot clock ticked down. Five free throws later, the game was over and Turgeon told the Terps, “That’s all I’m ever going to say. Just have fun.”
As the third-year coach walked off the court, slapping hands with boosters who flooded the exit, he inhaled and puffed his cheeks out then sighed. Later, asked whether the victory was a welcome relief during such a maddening season, he said no and went on a tangent.
“It’s not a relief,” Turgeon said. “It gives me hope that the guys are listening to messages and it’s like okay, maybe we felt pressure at home being at home tonight. We were going right through their man, then they went zone and we just couldn’t make one. Then we got 20 offensive rebounds, only scored 10 points. We couldn’t finish around the rim either. It was one of those nights. When Charles had those three shots and had the hook shot I was so excited because we finally scored on a second-chance point.”
Turgeon looked at the reporter. He had spent all season confused about the Terps, wondering when his words would take and if they would turn things around. For one night they had, but in this moment of bliss — and maybe a bit of relief — Turgeon again found himself bewildered, only this time he was smiling.
“What was the question?” he said. “It’s been a long stretch here.”