ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Sloppiness, fatigue and midnight arrived concurrently during the Paradise Jam championship. Gone was the animated Maryland men’s basketball team that sprinted to an early lead against Providence. In its place sat a desperate group scraping to hang on, and junior Dez Wells was sent to the free throw line to clinch the title.
Minutes later, his teammates were flooding midcourt after the junior guard’s two free throws sent the Terrapins to a 56-52 victory. They accepted the shiny plaque, sported black tournament hats with the tags still attached and climbed a metal ladder to snip the nylon net. Still November, Maryland celebrated like it was March, exhaling after a near-collapse and leaving the island with the souvenirs that mattered.
“We got you one, baby,” Wells told John Auslander, the team’s only senior, because “I said before you graduate, I’m going to make sure you get a championship. I don’t care what kind of championship.”
Blessed by early foul trouble that Coach Mark Turgeon said ultimately gave him fresh legs for a grueling second half, Wells helped the Terps withstand a late Providence rally that evaporated a 19-point lead. The guard finished with 13 points, tying classmate Evan Smotrycz for the team-high, and both were named to the all-tournament team. Reporters voted Wells the most valuable player.
“Yeah I was tired,” Wells said. “But I pushed through it, just like any other guy would have done who wants to win the game. We all had it together and we all did it together.”
Maryland traveled to the tournament focused on curing a degenerating defense, which had allowed 90 points in a loss to Oregon State and required an introspective film session before taking off. The players insisted the problem was behind them, no matter how much it rattled their confidence, and winning the three-game, four-day tournament helped them prove it.
Instead of lulling both teams to sleep after a long day of poolside rest, the late-night tipoff — so late, in fact, that radio broadcasters Johnny Holliday and Chris Knoche jokingly wore pajama tops for pregame pictures — jolted Maryland into its best start all season. The Terps sprinted to a 6-0 lead, highlighted by a thunderous one-handed dunk and behind-the-back layup from Wells, and led by 12 points at intermission. The fast start juxtaposed their first five games, when stumbling from the opening whistle became commonplace.
“I didn’t feel good about us a week ago Sunday, but we had great practices,” Turgeon said. “I knew we were going to play better. I didn’t know if we could do this. This is pretty big for us.”
Energetic on defense and frantic in transition, Maryland (4-2) upped itself after smothering Northern Iowa the night before. Providence, off to its first 6-0 start since 1990, made just 23.3 percent of its attempts in the first half, even as Wells dealt with early foul trouble. While on the bench, the junior guard actually needed to help settle down a coaching staff yelling themselves hoarse and clamoring for the program’s first regular-season tournament championship since the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in 2006-07.
By the time Varun Ram, who again proved a defensive pest off the bench, rattled in a three-pointer from the right wing, the Terps were up by 19 points, seemingly enough distance to withstand a late Providence rally. But the Friars had faced halftime deficits before this season, mounting comebacks against both Boston College and Vanderbilt, and finally broached single digits midway through the second half.
As Maryland’s offense grew cold, mirroring its typical first-half performances this season, Providence’s woke up. A 12-0 run cut the deficit to 44-37 with less than nine minutes left, and even as Wells traded two baskets with the Friars, it became five points and then three. On the other end, center Shaquille Cleare (seven points) missed two close attempts and Layman had one blocked, and not until 1 minute 57 seconds left remained did someone other than Wells hit a field goal after halftime.
“I was just hoping we would make a shot,” Turgeon said, standing at midcourt while his players and staff climbed up 10 feet with scissors in their hands. “I knew if we do that, we could get enough stops.”
The Terps had gotten just enough stops and made just enough free throws, so now Turgeon turned around and walked towards the basket.
“Let me cut my net,” he said.