A trying season was 20 minutes from its breaking point Wednesday night, and Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon again was looking for an answer. As his team marched into the locker room at Comcast Center trailing Notre Dame by nine at halftime, Turgeon gave his team a simple piece of counsel.
Relax. Miss a shot? Laugh it off.
After a 74-66 victory that just might have saved this season from January ruin, it seemed silly Maryland hadn’t been playing this way all along.
“We thought he would be in there screaming and throwing water bottles around,” center Shaquille Cleare said. “But he came in calm and said stop walking on eggshells.”
The Terps (11-7, 3-2 ACC) outscored the Fighting Irish (10-7, 1-3) by 17 points in the second half despite a miserable shooting performance. Held scoreless in the first half, Dez Wells finished with a team-high 17 points, including 11 from the free throw line. In his first start this season, Seth Allen added 14 points, and Nick Faust (13 points) kept Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton to just four points after intermission.
So Turgeon, days after suffering consecutive 20-point losses for the first time in his career and drawing the ire of a desperate fan base that began questioning his job security, high-fived everyone in sight as he left the floor. Cleare became a human tackling dummy, shoved around by his teammates as the Comcast Center crowd roared its approval. On the sidelines, Charles Mitchell grabbed Roddy Peters and massaged the freshman’s scalp. Turgeon bounded around and flapped his arms, and his players later said they had never seen him so happy.
For the first time in weeks, everyone could exhale. And smile.
“It was really that simple,” Turgeon said. “There was a lot of pressure. We had to win this game.”
The 34-25 halftime deficit could have been much worse, though Maryland didn’t help itself with only four second-chance points on 13 offensive rebounds and a streak of 13 straight missed three-pointers.
The first half’s final offensive possession again offered a window into the disaster. Despite a 30-second timeout to scheme against Notre Dame’s zone, the inbounds pass was nearly intercepted. Then Wells spent several seconds holding the basketball and staring at Turgeon, seemingly wondering what play to run. Once everyone decided to move, Mitchell caught the pass, took a couple dribbles and promptly traveled. Boos rained from the crowd. It wasn’t apparent whether they were directed at the officials or the home team.
“Obviously we weren’t very good the first half, weren’t very good defensively, couldn’t guard a simply down screen and then we couldn’t make a shot,” Turgeon said.
But Maryland had been rendered lifeless before by early deficits against Pittsburgh and Florida State, so here was another opportunity to buck the trend. Soon the Fighting Irish grew cold and sloppy and went scoreless for nearly seven minutes into the second half with 17 turnovers overall. Two putback layups from Mitchell (10 points, seven rebounds) chopped the lead to one point, and the building, once filled with restlessness, erupted.
With Allen’s broken left foot continuing to heal and the sophomore’s conditioning improving, Turgeon finally moved him into the lineup, an expected switch that benched Peters. The only hang-up since Allen began playing six games ago was whether his body could handle the rigors of starting.
Emotionally, Allen was always there, no more so than when his deep three-pointer regained the lead for Maryland at 39-36. The Terps had tied the game moments earlier when Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey was whistled for a technical foul. They could feel momentum shifting their way, so Allen hopped back on defense, three fingers raised into the air. They never trailed again.
Later, after the season had been salvaged — or at the very least stayed — Allen couldn’t even remember the shot that changed everything. He said he was too into the moment, too busy smiling.