The Maryland men’s basketball team beat its first ranked team since 2010 on Wednesday. It won thanks to a buzzer-beating tip-in from Alex Len and later got swarmed by a sellout crowd rushing the Comcast Center court. It was an undeniable emotional high for a group desperate to break through, especially given its draining two-game losing streak.
And yet for all the positives to take away entering Saturday’s road test against North Carolina, Coach Mark Turgeon centered on a player who wasn’t even on the floor during those late, defining moments.
“I think that was probably the best thing about the whole night, was Shaq and how well he performed and how ready he was for it,” Turgeon said.
Receiving just his second career start, Shaquille Cleare looked like a different player. He confidently bodied up Wolfpack forward Richard Howell, resisting back-downs with ease. He played a season-high 24 minutes, finishing with eight points and five rebounds. Starting at center alongside Alex Len, who moved to power forward, Cleare turned in the best performance of his young Maryland tenure.
“I thought Shaq was terrific,” Turgeon said. “It was a perfect game for him, big bodies, the UCLA offense that they ran kept the big guys close to the basket. So it was a good situation for him.
“That’s real encouraging, that took a lot of pressure off Alex defensively. I’m really hoping it’s the start of something really good for us. Shaq gained a lot of confidence, he missed a couple easy ones that he’s going to make, 4 for 7, missed a couple free throws he’ll make once he starts playing more minutes in big games.”
Cleare takes a certain pride in his deceptive strength. Sure, he’s a behemoth in person, but even most giants can’t beat the NBA combine record by bench-pressing 185 pounds 29 times. So when North Carolina State kept pumping passes inside to Howell, trying to take advantage of Cleare’s youthfulness, most possessions ended with either a missed shot or a kick-back pass.
“We were going at it the whole time,” Cleare said. “I don’t think he’d ever played against someone like me. He was trying to hit me, and I wasn’t moving. He was like, I’ll just throw it back out or whatever. I don’t like to get pushed around. He was coming back at me.”
“It was cool,” Seth Allen said. “Richard Howell’s a big boy. Having Shaq there to hit him, so he won’t hit me, he was taking the beating for all of us. He’s had some great practices, rebounding and scoring, boxing out, he’s a real strong, physical guy.”
Len and Cleare rarely had been on the same side during practice this season, instead treating each other like sparring partners during workouts. Turgeon wanted to start Cleare for the Miami game, but back spasms limited him to four minutes. Healthy and rejuvenated, Cleare took full advantage against the Wolfpack.
Especially against bigger opponents, Len and Cleare present a formidable tandem inside. Double one, and the other springs free on the opposite block. Double both and Maryland’s shooters are open for jumpers.
Len’s offensive learning curve at power forward has proved challenging, so Turgeon simplifies the offense when Len and Cleare play together. It’s fairly generic, with Maryland’s standard motion, secondary break and set plays taking center stage. Turgeon doesn’t want to confuse his future lottery pick. He just wants Len to play.
As for Cleare, he might have played himself right into the Terps’ starting lineup, though he’s insisted that starting matters far less than contributing consistently. But it seems Cleare, after some early growing pains, is finally growing into his role.
Now, as for finally encountering an opponent who wasn’t surprised by Cleare’s strength? That may take some searching.
“Not here. No, not really,” Cleare said. “But hopefully I’ll meet some down the road. For now, I’ll take advantage of it.”