As soon as the buzzer sounded Friday night at Greensboro Coliseum, Maryland’s players started to celebrate. Alex Len had his arms in the air and Dez Wells was shaking his fist victoriously. The Terrapins had advanced to the ACC tournament semifinals with a resounding 83-74 win over hated Duke.
Time to party.
Those thoughts came to a crashing halt when the players heard their coach’s voice cutting through the cheers and the music coming from the Maryland band.
“Stop!” Mark Turgeon yelled, racing onto the court before he had even walked to midcourt for the ritual handshake with Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Not now — not yet!” He had his palms down and was gesturing vehemently in the direction of the floor demanding calm amid the din around him.
The players stopped instantly. They seemed to understand that in the context of March, a win over Duke in the ACC tournament quarterfinals is all well and good, but the job was far from done. The Terrapins understood that they needed at least one more victory — possibly two — to get where they wanted to be Sunday night: on the board as part of the NCAA tournament bracket.
“I didn’t really envision this sort of win at the end of my second year,” Turgeon said, not long after accepting Krzyzewski’s pat on the chest as they shook hands. “They missed some shots for us but I thought my guys played great — especially on defense. To get a win like this you have to be good and you have to be lucky, too. Tonight we had both.”
He smiled. “The only thing I know for sure about this win is that it helps me with my fans.”
No doubt it will. No doubt it will take away a little bit of the sting on Sunday night, when Maryland will almost certainly be on the outside looking in at the 68-team NCAA field for the third straight season and for the sixth time in nine years. Everyone in the Maryland locker room on Friday said they understood that there was still work to do on Saturday against North Carolina and perhaps even on Sunday.
Even so, the Terrapins came out, as Turgeon put it, “dead” against the Tar Heels. They were quickly down 12 and spent the entire game trying to get even. Against Duke they never trailed. Against North Carolina they led once: at 2-0.
To their credit, they didn’t give up and even had a chance to tie in the final seconds before Logan Aronhalt’s rushed NBA-length three-point attempt failed to draw iron with Maryland trailing, 79-76. Hanging in when a blowout is possible is admirable — but it is also to be expected at this time of year.
“Sometimes when a team is playing to survive, it can play tight,” Krzyzewski said on Friday. “And sometimes it picks up its game to another level.”
Maryland did both: It played its best game of the season Friday; it played tight on Saturday before digging in to try to rally against a team that had hammered the Terrapins twice during the regular season.
There was certainly no shame in the loss, but losing was a shame because back-to-back victories over Duke and North Carolina might have been enough to earn Maryland at least a trip to Dayton, Ohio, for the so-called “First Four.”
Now, Maryland may very well be a No. 1 seed — in the National Invitation Tournament. That was not the goal in November and it certainly wasn’t the goal after a 13-1 start — one that was deceptive because of a soft schedule. It really wasn’t until the last two weeks that the Terrapins began to show real improvement. They jelled this weekend but, almost certainly, it was one game — or one win — too late.
Most Maryland fans will walk away from this season feeling a lot like Turgeon feels: There was great improvement since last year and there was also great disappointment. There were 22 wins before Selection Sunday, but probably not enough against quality opponents.
The good news for Maryland is that Dez Wells emerged at season’s end as a rising star, and he should be back next season. The bad news is that Alex Len, who played one of his best college games Saturday and has learned to use his 7-foot-1 body around the basket, isn’t likely to be back. A slew of other players will return, but the Terrapins still need far more consistent play from the point guard position.
Turgeon readily admits that he has been tough on his players this season. He can get very cranky when things don’t go as he thinks they should. A year ago he made it crystal clear that he wasn’t thrilled with many of the players Gary Williams left him, notably Terrell Stoglin — who was his best player and his biggest headache. After a bad loss at Virginia in which Stoglin played poorly, Turgeon shook his head and said, “I’m just not sure how much longer I can coach that little guard.”
Stoglin is long gone now. Only two players on this year’s team — junior Pe’Shon Howard and senior James Padgett (who played a total of nine minutes this weekend) — played for Williams. On Saturday, Turgeon talked about how pleased he was with the progress the program had made in two years, in two months and in the past two weeks.
Two well-played games, even when one is a loss, can improve a coach’s mood considerably. On Thursday night, after finally pulling away from a bad Wake Forest team in the first round of the tournament, Turgeon stood in an empty hallway clearly not certain how he felt about the season.
“It’s March 14th and there are times I feel like we’re still searching,” he said. “It gets really frustrating.”
A pause. “We’re really so much better though than last year,” he said. “That’s made it a lot easier to coach.”
Another pause. “Who knows, maybe we can win the NIT.”
One more change of direction: “I know we’ll come to play tomorrow [against Duke]. I’d just like to have the chance to see if we can put two good games together.”
His team came to play against Duke and gave itself that chance. But the team’s goals — a win over North Carolina and a possible NCAA tournament berth — didn’t pan out.
That’s why Turgeon didn’t want a celebration after the Duke game. When a program truly comes of age, it celebrates a big win as if it has been there before.
When Maryland beat Duke on Feb. 16, the fans stormed the Comcast Center court and Turgeon cried tears of joy. The Terrapins came a long way in four weeks. But the journey back isn’t over yet.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.