The nightmare scenario was unfolding as the first half ticked away. The Maryland men’s basketball team was behind, at home before a record-low crowd once again growing restless, to the worst team in the ACC. The Terrapins needed a jolt.
Bracketing intermission with steals from guards Dez Wells and Nick Faust that turned into thunderous dunks, Maryland overcame another early bout of sluggishness to put away visiting Virginia Tech, 64-47. But the victory, which gave the Terps a brief reprieve from a month-long string of heartbreaking losses, was sullied by an incident that saw forward Charles Mitchell sent to the locker room by Coach Mark Turgeon.
Emotions bubbled over before halftime. Mitchell, a sophomore, was seen shouting at Terps assistant Scott Spinelli and yanked off his jersey as he exited the court through the tunnel. Mitchell eventually returned in warmup gear and sat down at the end of the bench, where he remained for the game’s duration without returning to the floor.
“I’m not going to get into details,” Turgeon said later, adding that Mitchell’s status for future games would be decided Wednesday. “It was something, had some discipline involved. Asked him to go to the locker room.”
The incident injected a hint of drama into a game missing much energy. Virginia Tech arrived trying to avoid its first 20-loss season since 1955. Maryland, meanwhile, had already clinched its ninth non-winning conference season over the past 11 years, so its final two ACC games were all about seeding for the conference tournament next week in Greensboro, N.C.
The Terps (16-14, 8-9 ACC) are still likely slotted into the No. 8-No. 9 game on the second day, but a season-ending losing streak would have detonated all that and further rankled a thinning fan base — the announced crowd of 10,517 was the smallest for an ACC game at Comcast Center — already coming to grips with a fourth consecutive season without an NCAA tournament bid.
Until Wells (11 points) opened the second half by swiping a pass, soaring for the dunk and unleashing a confident smile toward the crowd, losing seemed like a very real possibility. The Hokies’ zone defense had made Maryland impatient, settling for quick threes even when a simple pass through the high post had been proven to bring layups when Virginia Tech’s big men helped. But by halftime, the Terps were behind 29-28, getting out-rebounded by 11 and still laboring through the shooting woes that propelled them to Sunday’s double-overtime heartbreaker at Clemson.
Sobering the situation even more for Maryland was the mid-game injury to Virginia Tech forward C.J. Barksdale, which left the Hokies without four scholarship players. Ben Emelogu and Cadarian Raines, both handling ankle issues, were left behind in Blacksburg, so only Joey van Zegeren (14 points) and Jarell Eddie (14 points) scored in double figures as the Hokies (9-20, 2-15) were held in the 40s for the fourth time.
The Terps, meanwhile, entered at full strength and lauded the possibilities of playing on one day’s rest, hungry for redemption after leaving Clemson with 50 hard-fought minutes but another loss. Mitchell’s absence seemed to ignite his teammates, who surged to a 12-point lead in the early stages of the second half without their leading rebounder. Passes moved faster, threading holes through the zone and finding open teammates on kick-outs.
“Doesn’t matter how you start a game,” Wells said. “It matters how you finish it. I felt we finished strong with a good momentum going into the next game. That’s where our focus is.”
Forward Jake Layman, who came off the bench for just the second time this season, was the biggest beneficiary of the second-half rejuvenation, hitting three threes and finishing with 13 points, a team high. Even center Shaq Cleare, who had been a non-factor over the past several weeks, seemed inspired without his close friend Mitchell around, scoring more points (six) than over his past seven games combined.
“All in all,” Turgeon said, “we needed it. It was a good win.”