BLACKSBURG, Va. – Twelve days ago, Coach Mark Turgeon and the Maryland men’s basketball team left Raleigh, N.C., searching for answers. The collapse had been epic, even more pronounced given that North Carolina State was missing its leading scorer, and anything taught in practice never quite seemed to translate into games. With January nearing its end, what could be done?
“Sometimes,” Turgeon said, “you just have to turn into a real jerk. And it’s no fun.”
Midway through their ACC schedule, the Terrapins finally resurfaced above .500 with an 80-60 rout of host Virginia Tech on Saturday, the blowout victory they sorely needed. It had been weeks since Maryland had so comfortably won, since the offense flowed this well, since the defense delivered this complete of a performance, since Turgeon could approach the end of his bench and tell the walk-ons, “Get ready, you’re going in.”
What Dez Wells (19 points), Seth Allen (16 points, seven assists, five rebounds), Jake Layman (10 points), Nick Faust (10 points), Evan Smotrycz (nine points) and Charles Mitchell (eight points, six rebounds) started, players like Spencer Barks (first points of the season) and A.J. Metz (first minutes of the season) finished.
Granted, Maryland couldn’t have found a bigger conference punching bag than the Hokies, losers of eight straight and winless since the calendar turned. But given how far behind schedule the Terps were less than two weeks ago, languid and disjointed and scrambling for some semblance of positivity, Saturday’s dunk-filled laugher went as well as anyone could have scripted.
“We’re doing a lot of things really good right now,” said Wells, who came off the bench 56 seconds into the game after arriving late to team breakfast. “We would’ve liked to start out the year playing like this, but I mean we’ve gone through stretches where we won the Paradise Jam championship, we strung through a couple good wins right now. We want to build off this going to North Carolina. Enjoy this win today, get back on the win, get back home, then get back into the gym.”
In hindsight, Virginia Tech represented a mere stepping stone as Maryland approaches the toughest stretch of its season. First, it visits North Carolina on Tuesday. Then Florida State, a 24-point winner in Tallahassee on Jan. 12, comes to College Park. After that are road dates at Virginia, which is bulldozing ACC teams after having figured out its offense, and Duke, which after slipping from the top 15 has experienced its own rejuvenation.
“There’s no question the next four games are the toughest part of our schedule,” Turgeon said. “Not that the last part is going to be easy. I just feel good because … I just want our team to look like they like to play together, like they like to play the game and like they’re coached. That’s important to me. I think we’re starting to play that way.”
For weeks, as frustration built among the fan base and many began calling for a reevaluation of Turgeon’s job security, there was a cavernous disconnection between practices and games. What was taught behind closed curtains rarely seemed to translate when the lights turned on, and losses to Pittsburgh, Florida State and North Carolina State supported this.
“Great teams listen to their coach,” Layman said.
But beginning last Saturday, when the Terps lost to Pittsburgh but still put forth a strong offensive showing, improvements have slowly begun to show and the cracks were sealed. They held Virginia Tech’s leading scorer, Jarell Eddie, to just two points and zero field goals, and only one player reached double figures. Allen continues to work toward peak physical condition and delivered arguably his most complete game in a Maryland uniform yet. Layman, Wells and Mitchell all threw down massive dunks that had the locker room buzzing during postgame.
“Just no let-ups,” Wells said. “We have to be a good team for 40 minutes. Virginia Tech’s a good team, they execute really well and they’re disciplined in what they do. We had to come out with the killer instinct and keep them down. That’s what we did. Happy we came out with the win.”
Reasonably, there is only so much the Terps can extract from turning an eight-point halftime lead into a runaway victory, and chances are they will immediately turn their attention to the Tar Heels without reviewing much film from Cassell Coliseum. But if they indeed want to turn the corner, if they want to salvage something in February and March, then victories like this can be the start.
“It’s definitely a building block,” Allen said. “We have to take every game one game at a time. We’ve won two in a row, so we feel like we’re really moving.”