Sometime during the first half of its 67-57 win over Wake Forest, following a forgettable play that likely had little bearing on Saturday’s final outcome, Maryland’s entire bench stood as one, like someone had organized an impromptu wave on the Joel Coliseum sideline. Players, coaches and managers rose together to encourage the five who were scrapping on the floor with claps and cheers. To their left, Wake Forest’s students jeered. “Sit back down,” one fan yelled. “Why are they standing,” a cheerleader whispered in wonder.
Maryland’s lowest moments this season coincide with a chicken-and-egg-type equation. Do the Terrapins struggle so mightily because they’ve splintered apart, cracking under the pressure and reverting to more individualistic, me-first tendencies? Or have the frustrating disappointments, like those endured at Boston College and Georgia Tech over the past two weeks, created glaring problems?
Either way, Coach Mark Turgeon deemed the issue so problematic that he hammered his point home during Thursday’s film session, just hours after the Terps suffered another ACC road letdown against the Yellow Jackets.
With personalities ranging from Alex Len’s accented deadpan to Charles Mitchell’s omnipresent smile to Dez Wells’s fierce hunger for battle, the Terps have developed into Turgeon’s most tight-knit team — except when they’re on the floor. At some point this season, Maryland’s locker room chemistry started to come apart during games.
“This whole trip, [Turgeon] told us we’d stay on the road, and we did a good job,” Pe’Shon Howard said after Saturday’s win. “After we lost, he did a good job of moving onto the next day. We did a lot of team bonding stuff. The main thing was he said we looked like we didn’t have fun. We have fun off the court, but between the lines we’re just not a team.”
Regardless of their deficiencies vs. the Demon Deacons – 19 turnovers, five missed free throws and a 21.4 shooting percentage on three-pointers come to mind – the Terps cobbled together arguably their most complete and well-rounded effort on the road since a drubbing of Northwestern in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge last November. On the back end of a two-game road trip, following team dinners and television and working out together at the local fitness center, Maryland once again looked like a real team.
“We just competed today,” Turgeon said. “We had an attitude that we weren’t going to lose. We hung our heads pretty quickly as players and as a coaching staff on Wednesday, because we were just so out of it. I think we were inspired today. I thought we were fresh. I think we were together. Not everyone played well and we didn’t make a lot of jump shots.
“It was kind of like the Duke game at home. No matter what happens, we’re going to figure it out. It was good to see a young team play like that on the road and defend like that. That was fun for me. That was a lot of fun to see kids competing and diving on the floor and overcoming a lot out there.”
The Terps were given every opportunity to lay another egg away from College Park. Before Wake Forest’s largest crowd this season, a group of 14,173 nostalgic fans waving paper Chris Paul heads to celebrate the legendary guard’s jersey retirement, Maryland committed 24 fouls, one short of its season high, and saw all four of its post players enter halftime with two fouls.
James Padgett eventually fouled out, and Shaquille Cleare finished with four. But after each picked up their third personal less than one minute into the second half, both Wells and Len finished with a clean slate. Wells was again the star on the road, finishing with a game-high 23 points on 11-of-12 shooting, none of which came further than three feet from the basket. Len cleaned up 10 rebounds despite another lackluster offensive effort (five points on 2-of-6 shooting), but nailed his longest jump shot of the season to help clinch the win.
“I think we had to have it,” said senior Logan Aronhalt, who along with Nick Faust had nine points. “Going into the last two games and the [ACC] tournament, we had to have this one to just keep our spirits up and give us a chance in these last two.”
Turgeon found himself wary of another flop on an emotional day for the Demon Deacons, who not only honored Paul and their three seniors, but had recently dealt Miami its first ACC loss this season. His Terps have teetered around .500 throughout ACC play, never sinking worse than two games under but also never piecing together a streak of more than two wins.
“We haven’t caught a lot of breaks this year, to be quite honest with you,” Turgeon said. “We continue to fight. We got our 20th [win], which is tremendous with this young team. We put our backs against the wall. We’ve been one game over .500 to .500 to one under all year in the league. If we had any chance of trying got be .500, we had to win this game. So I was leery. But we used it was motivation. Our guys competed. We like playing. As a competitor, you want to play in an arena that’s full, in front of a spirited crowd, on Chris Paul Day. It was good for our group.”
“Group” being the operative word.