They had resided at the end of the bench throughout January and February, enduring one crushing close loss after another, every bit as invested as the Maryland men’s basketball players tasked with ending the skid. So as the walk-ons, one by one, stood up and jogged towards the scorer’s table Tuesday night, the Terrapins regulars whirled their white towels like helicopter blades, hollering at the teammates for whom these moments had become rare since the calendar turned. “It’s fun winning,” guard Dez Wells said later.
Maryland will gladly pocket the confidence earned during a 64-47 win over last-place Virginia Tech, trading their trend of close losses for a rare blowout, but how much could reasonably be gained from pounding the cellar-dwelling, shorthanded Hokies? In fact, depending on whether Coach Mark Turgeon decides to further discipline forward Charles Mitchell, they may head into the regular season finale against Virginia further behind than when they began it.
Before the student section began chanting for junior Jake Susskind and his fellow scout-teamers to ride out the waning minutes, they had been joined towards the bench’s end by an unfamiliar face. After a shouting incident with assistant coach Scott Spinelli that resulted in his banishment to the locker room, Mitchell had returned wearing a warm-up jersey and sat down in the final seat, where he remained until the players seated beside him were called upon to serve as human victory cigars.
Turgeon offered no update during his postgame news conference, only promising that he would “sleep on” it and talk with Mitchell on Wednesday. The third-year coach has only handed out one in-season suspension during his tenure (Pe’Shon Howard last season) but if he deems Mitchell worthy of further punishment, it would leave the Terps without their leading rebounder and starting big man entering Sunday’s matchup with No. 5 Virginia.
“Charles and I will handle it,” Turgeon said.
The regular-season finale might unfold without much consequence — even with a victory, the Terps could still be relegated to the No. 8-No. 9 game during the ACC tournament — but Mitchell’s incident cast a shadow over a much-needed breather for Maryland.
The hosts were characteristically sluggish in the first half, entering intermission behind by one point, but sandwiched the break with steals and dunks from guards Nick Faust and Wells that electrified the lowest-attended ACC game in Comcast Center history.
“The energy in the building wasn’t great and we weren’t great about it, our energy either,” Turgeon said. “It set the tone.”
Take away whatever caused the situation with Mitchell to escalate — Turgeon and players alike declined to provide details — and there was plenty of room for optimism, something the Terps had only managed to salvage from close defeats to Virginia, Duke, Syracuse and Clemson over the past month.
Sophomore Jake Layman broke out of a recent shooting slump to finish with a team-high 13 points on four threes, all after halftime. Center Shaq Cleare, perhaps inspired by the absence of his close friend Mitchell, scored six points, including a one-handed dunk that was easily his personal highlight of the past seven games. Against Virginia Tech’s zone, Maryland committed only five turnovers and handed out 18 assists. And the Terps kept an opponent below 50 points for the first time in ACC play.
Granted, the Hokies were without four injured scholarship players and committed 17 turnovers in the process of losing their 20th game for the first time since the Eisenhower administration, but Maryland was perfectly content glossing over those details, in particular the loss of its most consistent rebounder and energetic post threat.
“This is a big win for us going into our next game,” Wells said. “We just want to enjoy this win for tonight and tomorrow we’re going to recover, do what we have to do, get our bodies right and minds right for the next game.”