ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — The Maryland men’s basketball coaching staff wore untucked baggy black polo shirts because on this island of paradise, everything is a little more relaxed. A disc jockey spun tunes from the concourse level, and during media timeouts, an emcee interviewed fans seated in the bleachers.
Given the casual atmosphere, the Terrapins could easily be pardoned for another slow start against another subpar opponent. But after laboring through the first half in a 68-43 rout of Marist, Maryland discovered a new gear and relied on its defense to steamroll through the first round of the three-game, four-day Paradise Jam.
“I had a feeling we were going to struggle offensively tonight, and we did,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Second half, we actually executed a little bit better, passed the ball a little bit better. If we continue to guard like that, we can overcome bad offensive nights.”
During interviews this week, the Terps (2-2) had contrasted this regular season trip to their summer tour to the Bahamas, when team-bonding trips to water parks were among the top priorities. This time, they said, the beaches didn’t matter nearly as much as mending a disappointing start that sank Turgeon’s squad below .500 through three games for just the second time in his career.
Three months later, the one Caribbean constant appears to be Jake Layman. The sophomore averaged 21.3 points per game against the local island teams in August and stung the Red Foxes (0-5) for a game-high 16 points Friday, including four three-pointers. Forward Charles Mitchell added 12 points and eight rebounds for Maryland, which advanced in the winner’s bracket to face Northern Iowa — 90-81 winners over Loyola Marymount — on Sunday.
“He can shoot the heck of the ball,” said guard Varun Ram, who was a spark plug off the bench with two steals and several more deflected passes. “When he’s hot, we just try to keep getting him the ball.”
Layman twice helped the team shake off a sluggish first half; the Terps led just 8-5 eight minutes into the game. Maryland’s most consistent scorer through four games, Layman hammered a transition dunk and sank a three-pointer that put his team up 17-8, then had another three-pointer and transition layup to break an 18-18 tie.
Though no other Terps reached double figures, Dez Wells (nine points), Roddy Peters (nine points) and Shaquille Cleare (eight points on 4-for-4 shooting) led a balanced effort that wore down Marist. Aided by foul trouble to three Maryland regulars, including Wells — with zero points, two turnovers, two fouls in eight first-half minutes — the Red Foxes entered halftime down just six.
As the second half began, order was quickly restored. Wells penetrated and dished to Cleare for an authoritative two-handed dunk on the Terps’ first possession, then hit a three from the right corner to give Maryland a double-digit lead. Layman grew the lead to 16 points with another three-pointer, forcing Marist to call a quick timeout to regroup as a 10-0 Terps run spiraled things out of control.
A maligned defense, which allowed 90 points against Oregon State on Sunday, was much improved against one of the nation’s worst scoring teams, obstructing passing lanes and swiping at errant dribbles.
“We weren’t great, but defensively we were pretty locked in almost every possession,” Turgeon said. “We were pretty good around the rim, which we haven’t been. I know they’re not a great scoring team, but we held them under their average, and we really guarded. Coming off Oregon State, it felt good.”
In this land of fun and sun, the Terrapins’ defense showed the team meant business.
“We’ve all been focused this whole week coming in,” Layman said before heading back to the team’s beachfront hotel. The Terps needed rest. In the morning, they were going snorkeling.