Everything, from the quarter-full crowd to the mid-major foe sitting on the opposite bench, felt like one of Maryland’s early-season nonconference games. And after a draining three days at the ACC tournament, some minor hangover was almost expected from these Terps.
Tuesday night, when Kentucky failed to show up at Robert Morris, sparking a raucous celebration in a first-round National Invitation Tournament matchup, a second-half burst provided the difference for Maryland against Niagara in a comfortable 86-70 win. No surprises at Comcast Center. Just taking care of business.
“I think our approach has been great,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “If we didn’t show up tonight we would have lost. Our determination in the second half shows that we are determined to get better and move on. I was really worried about our fatigue…Five games in 10 days in three different cities, grueling, emotional games, it’s tough. It shows you we are getting mentally tough to come out and play the way we did tonight.”
Baffled by an unfamiliar and swarming one-three-one matchup zone throughout the first half, the Terps finally sprinted out in transition, turning Niagara turnovers into dunks and three-pointers on the opposite end. The Purple Eagles, regular season champs in the MAAC, entered among the nation’s best in turnover rate, but coughed up three in four possessions during Maryland’s defining 12-0 run.
Bursting out like that provided a necessary cushion for Turgeon, allowing him to rest the workhorses who carried the Terps in Greensboro. Alex Len notched just 21 minutes, while Dez Wells and Nick Faust each played 25. Both Wells and Faust finished in double figures with 12 and 15 points, respectively, and Faust had his first career double-double with 11 rebounds. Only James Padgett, who told Turgeon with 10 minutes left to keep him on the bench and let his younger teammates gain postseason experience, didn’t see the floor.
Sleep-walking to a 35-35 tie at intermission would be troubling if Maryland didn’t immediately shake it off and open up a 12-point lead before Niagara could blink. Next up is third-seeded Denver, which bested Ohio, 61-57, at home late Tuesday night. The Pioneers, who play at the second-slowest tempo in the nation, according to KenPom.com, run a delayed Princeton offense heavy on rotation and backdoor cuts. A slow start against them will likely be punished harder.
“This point in the season, you can’t wait to turn it on,” said guard Pe’Shon Howard, who finished with six assists and four points against zero turnovers. “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.”
That toughness, reborn just several weeks ago even before the ACC tournament, allowed Maryland to grit out wins over Wake Forest and Duke. After shedding tears following the North Carolina loss, all attention turned towards the NIT. They even earned a new fan.
“I like this team,” Niagara Coach Joe Mihalich said. “Now I hope they win. You feel bad for a couple days, especially these guys because they didn’t get into the tournament. So you feel bad, then you get a win, it starts to feel good again, get another one, who knows. We’ll be rooting for them.”