A whoop boomed inside the Maryland men’s basketball team’s locker room, where all eyes were trained on the flat-screen televisions as they watched Kentucky try to avoid a colossal upset. The Terrapins had hoped for a rematch with the Wildcats, potentially bookending their season in New York in the National Invitation Tournament title game two weeks from now.
But while Kentucky sparked a court-storming at Robert Morris, ending its disappointing season, Maryland rolled to a 86-70 first-round win over Niagara that was rarely competitive after halftime.
The emotional highs sustained during the Terrapins’ ACC tournament run all but faded before a near-empty crowd of 4,053, the lowest men’s basketball turnout ever at Comcast Center. Yet depth and athleticism, the two virtues that helped Maryland to a 13-game winning streak after dropping its season opener against Kentucky, crushed the Metro Atlantic Atheltic Conference champions once the second half dawned.
“We were walking through the motions in the first half,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Give [Niagara] credit, they were making shots, playing with energy, they were loose. I just think that we figured out offensively how to play a little better, defense was better, got out on the break and ran, and I think we wore them down. They don’t have the depth we have.”
Tied at 35 at intermission against the scrappy Purple Eagles, whose matchup zone defense lulled the Terps to sleep, Maryland ratcheted up its pressure and sparked a game-clinching 12-0 run. Nick Faust notched his first career double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Four others finished in double figures. The second-seeded Terps (23-12) will host No. 3 Denver on Thursday.
Turgeon fretted this week about a physical and mental hangover, brought on from a grueling three-game, three-day stretch at Greensboro Coliseum. Niagara’s four-guard lineup was similarly concerning. Despite a game-high 24 points from Antoine Mason and 18 from Ameen Tanksley, the Purple Eagles found themselves worn down by a full-court press, Maryland’s only option to play up-tempo basketball.
“I think we were a little emotionally and physically drained to start the game,” Logan Aronhalt said. “I don’t think guys knew much about this team, and it’s hard to gauge how hard you have to play against a team. The first half, we relaxed a little too much, didn’t have too much energy, then finally we realized that we’d have to play against a good and talented team. The second half, we brought the energy, and offensively fed off our defense. The pressing created so many turnovers and open shots for us.
Once early turnovers led directly to a three-pointer and layup by Seth Allen, the Terps could coast. They bumped fists and flashed smiles. Pe’Shon Howard dished a between-the-legs bounce pass and finished with six assists against one turnover. Logan Aronhalt made 5 of 7 three-pointers after entering Tuesday night 3 of 18 over the past five games. Even the walk-ons made an appearance.
“That [tightness] left when the ACC tournament started,” Howard said. “We didn’t play with a sense of, we need to win this game to get in. We played with a sense of, let’s win the whole team. We fell a little short, but that attitude has carried over. Take it one game at a time, but our goal is to win a championship.”
If all goes to plan, Tuesday will become a minor speed bump on a longer road, all signs leading to Madison Square Garden in early April. Beneath the dry-erase board in the locker room sits a blown-up NIT bracket. Every matchup is covered by a white sheet of paper, except Maryland’s current opponent. The message is simple, even if Maryland’s eyes caused them to deviate for a few minutes: Focus on the task at hand.
“This point in the season, you can’t wait to turn it on,” Howard said. “Today we were able to will it out, but a lot of times we have to start from the beginning. I think fatigue is wearing on us. But the fact we were able to push through, it shows how tough we can be.
“You see on TV, Kentucky’s up there struggling. A lot of teams go through it. But the fact that we were able to push through, I think we should be fine from here on out.”