During an inspired, Hackman-esque pregame speech, Coach Mark Turgeon looked his Maryland basketball players in their eyes and asked one pointed question.
“Why did you come here?”
To win games, some answered, and to compete at a high level. The Terrapins entered Wednesday night on a two-game losing streak, mired in an offensive quagmire, sliding deeper and deeper at the outset of a relatively brutal ACC stretch.
Others wanted to win a national championship. Well, Maryland hadn’t beaten a ranked team since March 3, 2010, when an upset over fifth-ranked Duke sparked riots throughout College Park. The Terps had lost 17 straight to ranked teams since.
Absorbing the answers, Turgeon then offered his motivation.
“I came here to become a part of something that’s much bigger than myself,” Turgeon said, basking in the glory of Maryland’s 51-50 win over No. 14 North Carolina State. “Tremendous tradition, storied program, I came here to do great things. We haven’t done a lot of great things since I’ve been here. This is a great thing. Hopefully it’ll lead to many other things down the road.”
Turgeon never asked Alex Len for his reason, but the sophomore center responded all the same, tipping in Pe’Shon Howard’s off-balance prayer with 0.9 seconds left, causing a raucous celebration at Comcast Center. Len got piggy-backed by students then toppled like a fallen tree. Turgeon called it a “hugger,” the type where warm embraces dominate the postgame locker room experience.
“No, it’s a good thing,” Turgeon said. “The guys know me, I’m honest. It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing. You look at our schedule We’re at North Carolina, then Boston College, at Duke, at Florida State, we needed that one. That was just a gut-check.”
It was also a much-needed win for a Maryland team teetering between the biggest win of Turgeon’s short tenure and a crushing third straight loss, another ugly slugfest ended by knockout. The Terps and Wolfpack combined to shoot just 32.8 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from three-point range, but as the game barreled towards its thrilling conclusion, it had all the makings of another heartbreaker for Maryland.
After all, the Terps have been here before. They lost to Kentucky in the season-opener when Howard launched an ill-advised three-pointer at the buzzer. Poor execution doomed them versus Florida State, and Seth Allen’s desperation heave got blocked. So here they were, with 5.2 seconds remaining, when Howard drove baseline and got met by a wall of three Wolfpack defenders. Only no one remembered to box out Len.
And so the sellout crowd stood a little taller, preparing to rush the court, while a police K-9 unit lurked nearby, readying for the madness. The Terrapins insisted that execution, not a lack of confidence, was the problem over the past two games, but they were still a fragile group, starting two freshmen and three sophomores, faced with either another devastating defeat or a potential breakthrough win.
They emerged with the latter, just days after North Carolina State enjoyed its own court-storming session after toppling then-No. 1 Duke.
“[Turgeon] told us, if we wanted to make it big this year, we’ve got to win this game, which we did,” said Len, the only Maryland player in double figures with 10 points. “The last couple practices were pretty hard. He was in us the whole time. We just worked hard and it paid off.”
Said Turgeon: “It’s just one game. We’re going to celebrate. I was happy for the guys and the students storming the court … We haven’t won a big game since Greivis [Vasquez] was here. I didn’t’ come here to be mediocre, and I don’t think the players came here to be mediocre.”
The Terps are still far away from their stated goals, of national championships and the like. At least Wednesday was a baby step in the right direction.