JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mark Turgeon’s first exhale came just after the final buzzer and a subsequent look to the heavens. This was from deep within, from the bottom of his solar plexus, enough to puff both his cheeks out Dizzy Gillespie wide. His next came after he had received the congratulations of Belmont Coach Rick Byrd, when there was a pause in the handshake line. Feel that long, sustained breeze? That’s Turgeon, who did nothing if not survive Thursday afternoon.
“Is my heart rate like I’m sleeping?” Turgeon asked later. “No. But I just love it. I just love it.”
For most of Maryland’s players, this 79-77 victory over Belmont in the first round of the NCAA tournament represented so much of what they hadn’t yet accomplished — winning a postseason game of any kind, getting a date against a beatable opponent for a chance to play in what would amount to a home game in the Sweet 16. It’s heady stuff, and it matters.
But let’s be quite clear: Maryland’s tournament is about Maryland’s coach, and the support he either has or doesn’t have in College Park and beyond. Those exhales come from 680 games as a head coach in Division I, and a full understanding of the massive gulf — think the distance spanning Maryland and Madagascar — between a two-point win in Thursday’s game, and what could easily have been a one-point loss.
In the corridor outside his team’s locker room, Turgeon exhaled one more time, and then leaned against a wall.
“You’re so absorbed in these kids, and what’s going on with them, and we’re battling, and you’re just trying to keep them up, trying to keep them positive,” he said, his buoyant players just around the corner. “It moves quickly. Sometimes you can’t slow it down . . . You’re just so wrapped up in trying to win.
“Now, when it’s over, you know the narrative’s changed, which is big.”
About that narrative: Turgeon is 54, in his eighth year at Maryland, a school with a rich basketball history and a fan base that expects March results that differ from, say, the 69-61 clunker against Nebraska in the first round of the Big Ten tournament exactly a week earlier, a game in which the Terrapins essentially no-showed.
Turgeon understands the environment that result created. Pack up the bus and get on a flight even before the first night of the first round had arrived? Turgeon spent all year telling anyone who would listen how he loved this team and how it would improve. To make those words ring at all true, that Nebraska taste had to be spat to the ground.
“I could not believe the way we played there,” Turgeon said. “I can say that now.”
With the sixth-seeded Terps down 12 in the first half to the 11th-seeded Bruins — who had to win a play-in game Tuesday in Dayton just to get here — that disbelief had been carried all the way to Florida, where the faces of the Maryland faithful during much of the first half were nothing short of ashen. You sympathize with these loyalists who deck themselves out in the state flag and spend good money to travel to Chicago and Jacksonville and all those places in between, because they hadn’t been rewarded for a while. It’s not just that the Terps had lost their previous five postseason games across three seasons. It’s that the past four had come to lower seeds, teams the Terps could have and should have beaten.
Now, this win. Sorry, this escape. The pitchforks won’t be at Turgeon’s gate Friday morning because they erased Belmont’s lead with a 14-0 run to open the second half. Maryland will play Saturday against LSU because when Belmont trailed by one point and the clock ticked down, the Bruins decided to play for one shot — one shot to win — and couldn’t get it.
“I could just see the clock going down,” Maryland freshman Eric Ayala said. “And I’m like, ‘Man, we could either be on ESPN tonight losing the game or winning the game.’ ”
So many tiny things go into Turgeon’s massive exhale. The last was this: When Belmont point guard Grayson Murphy tried to make the pass to set up the shot to win the game, Ayala got his hand on it, and Darryl Morsell stole it.
Another play, another result, and this is a far different conversation. That’s the coaching life. Turgeon knows it. His players seemed to understand as well.
“We had to get that one for Coach Turgeon,” said sophomore center Bruno Fernando, who came up with 14 points and 13 rebounds. “I will say it again: He’s been through a lot of things for us, and he puts a lot on himself, and [there’s] a lot of criticism and blame on him. For us to be able to get that win, to get that first one out of the way — for him — now we got to be able to focus on the next one.”
The next one: What an opportunity. LSU is seeded third in the East Region because the Tigers went 16-2 in the SEC. But anyone who watched their difficult victory against Yale here understands they’re in some sort of disarray. The school suspended Coach Will Wade because of his reported involvement in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball. At various points Thursday, three different Tigers coaches seemed to be running their operation. At stake: not just a spot in the Sweet 16, but a spot in the Sweet 16 at Capital One Arena.
So then, Turgeon’s next test: another game plenty of people will think the Terrapins should win. And another March result that could color an entire season.
“We’ve had a really good year,” Turgeon said. “I know no one wants to hear the head coach bragging about his team . . . ” But here it comes anyway. If someone wants to take the narrative in one direction, Turgeon is here to pull it back.
“I think I’m 7-2 in first-round [NCAA] games,” he said, which he is — including 4-1 during his stints at Wichita State and Texas A&M. And these Terps? He’s so armed with the arsenal to defend their results — a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten with a record that’s now 23-10 — that the talking points come out almost in singsong form, a résumé as poem.
“We had the eighth-hardest schedule with the fourth-youngest team,” Turgeon said. “We had eight out of 11 on the road,” a month-long stretch from mid-January to mid-February. “They took a home game away from us,” because a matchup with Illinois was moved to Madison Square Garden, where the Terps lost it.
And so here is the coach, still standing. Even if he’s leaning against that wall outside the Maryland locker room, he’s still standing.
“We just kept battling,” Turgeon said. “We kept battling. We could’ve went the other way, but we didn’t. We’re in this tournament. We’re clearly in it — and we win a game.”
All of Maryland, then, can exhale. The biggest questions a program can face were put off. What’s left is an opportunity for a team Mark Turgeon loves to get better again, to have the season remembered not for the loss to Nebraska but for two wins here, and have the pitchforks put back in the shed.
Read more on the NCAA tournament: