As the Maryland men’s basketball team returned to College Park from Christmas break, bellies full of holiday food and cheer, Coach Mark Turgeon uncapped a marker and scrawled two numbers onto the white board, with a dash in between:
It was a fresh start, Turgeon explained, even if the calendar hadn’t yet turned and the bulk of ACC play hadn’t yet begun. But the Terrapins were struggling, at 7-5 with the same late-December record as the football team, an inconceivable preseason notion given the NCAA tournament expectations that drenched Comcast Center. Something had to be done, though, so Turgeon settled on a new motto, telling his players that Sunday evening’s matchup against Tulsa was the beginning of a new season. The Terps responded with an 85-74 victory.
“Wipe your head clean of all your mistakes,” guard Dez Wells said, “everything you did that wasn’t good in the past.”
Coincidentally enough, the “new season” coincided with the return of point guard Seth Allen, whose presence makes Maryland more diverse and threatening on both ends. When he awkwardly fell on his left foot during an October practice and broke the fifth metatarsal bone, Allen downloaded an iPhone application called The Countdown and logged in the estimated return date, eight weeks away. First in crutches and then in a walking boot after successful surgery, he spent workouts with one eye trained onto the clock, watching months turn into weeks, weeks turn into days, days into hours and, as Friday afternoon approached, hours into minutes.
Doctors officially cleared Allen that day and trainer Matt Charvat backed the diagnosis, telling Turgeon that his sophomore point guard was ready to go, free of restrictions. During an interview on Saturday, Turgeon kept telling reporters that Allen would only receive “a few” minutes against the Golden Hurricane, to ease him into the grind of live action. But who could blame him for keeping Allen in for 21 minutes, given the 15-point spark he provided off the bench and the ovation he received from fans who had waited for this moment just as long as the Terps?
“He’s a special athlete and a good player,” Turgeon said. “He was playing at such a high level [before the injury]. … I can’t even tell you. Just good to get him back and I think it gave everybody, including me, confidence going into this game.”
Ten minutes into the game, the Terps seemed destined for a similar calamity to the ones endured at home against Oregon State and Boston University, when turnovers and low energy sent them spiraling into Christmas break. They were down 15 points when Pat Swilling hit a three-pointer from the right wing, but soon after Allen checked in for a second time, Maryland began the slow climb back.
Wells, who earlier had scored his 1,000th career point, hit a floater. Roddy Peters (seven points), the point guard starting over Allen during the frustrating rehabilitation process, stuck a transition layup. The third media timeout came and went, then Allen hit a layup and pulled up for a three-pointer in transition. After Evan Smotrycz (13 points) gathered a loose ball to hit a three-pointer and Wells (team-high 18 points) converted a layup and ensuing free throw, the lead was down to 27-25.
“Guys stayed positive,” guard Nick Faust (13 points) said. “We never really get down in the first half, down on ourselves, because we believe that as long as we get stops we can come back. We just keep a positive attitude, do everything we can to win.”
The Terps opened up a small lead in the second half then ballooned it double digits after Tulsa Coach Danny Manning was swiftly ejected by referee Karl Hess on consecutive technical fouls. Beating the Golden Hurricane (4-9) wasn’t exactly a statement victory for a Maryland team without one during nonconference play and a tough test lies less than 48 hours away against North Carolina Central, a pesky team that defeated N.C. State in overtime earlier this season and is coached by LeVelle Moton, Wells’ mentor and close friend.
But given its struggles at closing out games, Sunday night was at least a start.