It was a feeling Coach Mark Turgeon hadn’t experienced in weeks, approaching the end of the Maryland bench to let his walk-ons know they were going into the game. But after a nonconference slate that gave Maryland more trouble than anticipated and with the bulk of ACC play fast approaching, this blowout was much overdue.
“One of my assistants said to me, ‘You might not have a chance for a while again,’ ” Turgeon said after Maryland’s 70-56 win over North Carolina Central on Tuesday afternoon at Comcast Center. “Our schedule’s pretty difficult. . . . But it was good to see.”
Against the Eagles (7-4), the Terps (9-5) bucked a trend established during earlier nonconference games, when slow starts and lethargy either led to defeat (to Oregon State and Boston University) or demanded second-half comebacks (Abilene Christian and Florida Atlantic). They received a career game from Nick Faust, a balanced effort throughout the roster and, by holding guard Jeremy Ingram, one of the nation’s top scorers, to a season-low 11 points on 4-of-19 shooting, the type of asphyxiating defensive performance Turgeon has wished for since last summer.
The third-year Maryland coach traced his team’s improvement to one factor. Ever since point guard Seth Allen returned to practice from a broken foot Friday, he has added a measure of depth to the roster, so Turgeon reacted to defensive mistakes by quickly subbing out the offending personnel.
“I think it’s given us all confidence,” Turgeon said. “It’s that simple.”
Having a confident and headstrong Faust helps, too. Once known for both scoring bursts and bumbling mistakes, sometimes within seconds of each other, Faust has grown into his reserve role and become Maryland’s best perimeter defender. His efficient 19 points on 5-of-11 shooting tied a career high, his nine rebounds left the junior guard one shy of a double-double, and his defense smothered Ingram on the perimeter.
“There was an adjustment, just getting in a groove coming off the bench,” Faust said. “You start off in warmups then you got to come out, but you have to come back in hot again. It’s just having the mind-set of staying locked in.”
Save for Faust’s tomahawk dunk in transition, after which he preened at the cameras and bounced down the floor, the afternoon featured little in the way of intrigue. The loudest cheer of the first half came during a timeout T-shirt toss. But as the game plodded along, Maryland kept pulling away, up eight at halftime then 23 with three minutes to go.
Dez Wells buttressed the early effort, scoring all 10 of his points before intermission, including a banked three-pointer as the shot clock expired that more closely resembled a chest pass than a jumper. He did this in front of the Eagles bench and Coach LeVelle Moton,a lifelong mentor from back home in Raleigh, N.C. The pair dined together on Monday night and spoke for 20 minutes during pregame stretching, but brushed the relationship aside for two hours before taking pictures together afterwards.
“The funny thing is,” Wells said, “he kept trying to bait me into saying something to give him motivation. He said, ‘Don’t beat us too bad.’ You’re not about to trap me, so you can quote some stuff to your team about me, so you can get them more motivated than they already are. Nah, I’m not falling for that.”
Six other players scored at least five points for the Terps, who will take New Years’ Day off before preparing for its ACC home opener against Georgia Tech on Saturday. They recovered from an early fit of turnovers (11 in the first half, five in the second) and shot 81.8 percent from the free-throw line, a stark difference from their previous season average of 63.8.
As the foul-plagued affair drew towards the final buzzer, Turgeon meandered down his bench to approach his non-scholarship players, many of whom hadn’t seen live action since November. He started tapping their shins to inform them it was time, and soon the regulars were subbed out, free to sit back and finally enjoy a comfortable victory that seemed so long in the making.