Once the ACC’s leading scorer walked to the bench in a hooded sweatshirt and sat down to observe Monday night’s game with an ankle sprain, North Carolina State made little effort to hide its game plan without T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack needed to replace 22.2 points per game and, more pressing, a usage rate that topped any power-conference player in the country.
Warren sprained his ankle late Saturday at Duke, a 30-point loss that sent N.C. State staggering back even further. The sophomore forward finished the game but couldn’t practice Sunday and, in Coach Mark Gottfried’s words, was “pretty gimpy” during shoot-around Monday afternoon.
“I think our players kind of had an idea,” Gottfried said, so he approached his star player 30 minutes before tip-off and said, “You’re not going to be very effective, even if you try.”
Adjustments quickly were made. Ralston Turner, the only Wolfpack player shooting better than 30 percent on three-pointers who was averaging 13 field goal attempts per 40 minutes, would slide into the starting lineup. He would carry the day.
“I told our coaches before the game, ‘Could be a good thing,’ ” Gottfried said. “Now you’re still trying to win the game. I do think at times our team relies on T.J. so much because he is so gifted offensively. I thought in the first half we were still trying to figure it out, but I thought int he second half our guys got comfortable.”
What happened next turned into a nightmare for the Terrapins. Turner was frigid in the first half, scoring just four points on 2-of-8 shooting. He missed all five free throws, and it looked as if the burden of replacing Warren was weighing him down. Then, with Maryland up 11 points in the second half and the Wolfpack on life support, he caught fire.
“No, I don’t think so,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said, when asked if he thought his players relaxed upon learning about Warren’s absence. “Especially when Turner was playing well. I think our guys knew.”
So what happened? A look at all five of Turner’s second-half three-pointers – he eventually matched a career high with 23 points – reveals myriad defensive mistakes along the perimeter by the Terps that helped him catch fire and have helped Maryland’s opponents shoot 37.1 percent on three-pointers this season, which ranks 284th nationally.
Second half, 14:38 remaining, Terps up 36-33
It took Turner nearly 26 minutes to notch his first three-pointer, which isn’t unusual given that he was shut out from deep in 19 minutes against Duke. But the first was the biggest; by this point, the Terps had coughed up their double-digit lead with defensive errors and poor offensive execution. All the Wolfpack needed was one final jolt to tie the score.
For some reason, Maryland’s best perimeter defender Nick Faust deemed it wise to go flying at an opponent who hadn’t made a three-pointer all night, biting on a ball-fake that wasn’t even particularly that convincing. The Terps have gotten better at curbing their enthusiasm on shot-fakes lately, but fell for several against the Wolfpack when they should have instead closed out and played reactionary, rather than trying to time the jump and block a shot.
“Finally,” one ESPN broadcaster said after Turner’s three-pointer swished.
Second half, 9:28 remaining, Terps up 46-42
Maryland had weathered the storm until this point, using five points from Seth Allen and a layup from Jon Graham to keep pace. But another defensive mistake from Faust gave Turner space.
This is called “corner,” and North Carolina State runs it so much that one reporter asked Gottfried about it by name during the postgame news conference. “We ran it a lot,” Gottfried replied.
Old sharpshooter Scott Wood served in Turner’s role last season and the action isn’t too complicated. Both big men stand in the short corners and set screens for the cutter, who is given the freedom to do whatever he likes. Run through, double back, hesitate, whatever. It’s up to him. Defending it successfully means trailing the cutter in his hip pocket and not trying to jump screens, because jumping screens results in exactly what happened here.
Second half, 8:50 remaining, Terps up 46-45
Freshman Roddy Peters took a mid-range jumper eight seconds into the shot clock that missed the rim entirely, tumbled out of bounds and had Turgeon steaming about the ill-advised selection, so Turner made the third-year coach just a little angrier on the next possession.
This time, Dez Wells switched onto Turner — with Faust guarding point guard Tyler Lewis – and made the exact same mistake of trying to go under a simple screen rather than trailing it.
“You don’t go under a screen on a guy like that, and we went under two screens,” Turgeon said. “Just defensive mistakes, mental mistakes. They happen. Sometimes you make the mistakes and they don’t make you pay for them. Tonight the kid did.”
Second half, 4:35 remaining, Wolfpack up 54-53
Here, Evan Smotrycz needs to show harder on the shooter who’s made three three-pointers until this stage and basically single-handedly kept the Wolfpack in the game.
“On the handoff we just weren’t aware,” Turgeon said. “We go over the handoff, Evan probably should have showed a little bit more.”
Looks like Wells got pinned on the screen, though perhaps he could have been more aggressive in fighting through it rather than bear-hugging his man.
T.J. Warren was pleased.
Second half, 2:40 remaining, Wolfpack up 59-55
This was the dagger. Smotrycz stuck a layup to chop the lead to four points and, with just less than three minutes left, time still remained for the Terps to salvage something from the collapse.
Instead, just after the ESPN highlight package fawned over Turner’s second half, Maryland pressed and forgot about Turner in the corner. No one even looked at him.
“It was a big game for him,” Charles Mitchell said. “He was making contested shots and we still played and he just kept making them. he was making a lot of shots. He played well in the second half.”