GREENSBORO, N.C. — It began against Florida State on Jan. 9, when three turnovers sent Pe’Shon Howard into a self-inflicted tailspin. Maryland’s junior point guard began retreating, quietly excusing himself from the big-brother role Coach Mark Turgeon wanted him to fulfill.
Howard then stumbled badly at North Carolina three games later when he committed seven turnovers in 14 minutes. Soon, his minutes and his confidence began dipping with each game, and he missed the Feb. 16 contest against Duke while serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules.
Yet here was Howard stroking three-pointers and soaring above the rim to spark a key run during Maryland’s 75-62 win over Wake Forest in the ACC tournament’s first round Thursday night. Thanks to Howard’s season-high 10 points and a game-high 21 from Dez Wells, the Terrapins will move on to face second-seeded Duke for the third time this season.
“We needed Pe’Shon,” Wells said. “He makes us a better team. He changes the dynamic of our team. With Pe’Shon playing great, we have a great chance of beating anybody.”
On a day when several Wake Forest alumni purchased a front-page advertisement in the Greensboro News & Record’s Sports section calling for the termination of Coach Jeff Bdzelik, the Demon Deacons slogged through a field goal drought for more than eight minutes in the second half. They alternated missed free throws (nine) with turnovers (14) as the Terrapins pulled away, aided by their most efficient outing from the free throw line (22 for 29) since the ACC opener.
“That was the difference,” Turgeon said of the free throws.
Following a thoroughly uneventful first half, Maryland entered intermission down five points, a blessing given the team’s distinct absence of offensive consistency and similar breakdowns on the defensive end.
Center Alex Len, who finished with 11 points, had more fouls (two) than shots made (one) by halftime. That field goal was his first career three-pointer.
After a halftime talk about ramping up the energy, the Terps appeared poised to break away when Wells — who is 18 of 22 from the field in Maryland’s past two games against Wake Forest — dunked a behind-the-back feed from Nick Faust in transition. But they traded blows until a 10-2, Howard-led burst broke open the game. As he stepped into a wide-open three-pointer from the right wing, his first since Feb. 19, a smile broke across his face. He followed that with a putback of Faust’s missed layup in transition.
After the game, Howard joked that “it was all luck.”
The junior has taken a self-deprecating approach in recent weeks, responding to barbs from fans on Twitter and cracking that perhaps the postseason will transform him into an “in-game player,” as opposed to one who thrives only in practice. Once he moved back into Turgeon’s starting lineup, Howard stopped dancing during pregame introductions and began leading by example, no more so than before an enthusiastic Greensboro Coliseum crowd.
Point guard has been a revolving door for Maryland all season, filled at times by Seth Allen (11 points off the bench), Faust (10 points) and even Wells. Even if the Terps will encounter a gantlet Friday night in the Blue Devils, who are 18-0 this season with forward Ryan Kelly in the lineup, stability at the position will only ease the burden off Maryland’s scorers.
“I really felt like I was letting these guys down,” said Howard, who helped limit Wake Forest’s C.J. Harris (19 points) to just five points after halftime. “But instead of turning around and being tough, and growing up and being mature about it, I was kind of to myself, not wanting to affect them in a negative way either. Whereas now, even if I’m not playing well, I’ll be positive for them, picking them up. That was the main thing. Still be a voice and a command like I was before ACC play.”