For a basketball team with as many shortcomings as short-handed Maryland, progress isn’t going to come in giant strides. It will come in much smaller increments.
Friday at Comcast Center, Maryland took a baby step forward, fending off a second-half rally by Florida Gulf Coast to prevail, 73-67.
While Maryland did not trail after a three-pointer by walk-on Jonathan Thomas gave it a 14-11 lead, what had the makings of a rout turned into a nail-biter.
Two things happened after Maryland (3-2) jumped to a 16-point lead — neither of them encouraging for first-year Coach Mark Turgeon. The Terrapins got overconfident and careless on both ends of the court. And Florida Gulf Coast (2-4) ramped up its defensive pressure, which utterly stymied the Terps.
The Eagles made more shots from the field (26 to Maryland’s 23), but Maryland pulled out the victory thanks largely to Terrell Stoglin’s determination to get to the free throw line.
Stoglin was ragged from the stripe, missing 6 of 8 free throws in the final 75 seconds. Chalk it up to sheer fatigue from slashing past so many big defenders in a furious effort to create plays.
“We felt like we had the game [won] because we were up by so much,” said Stoglin, who led all scorers with 24 points, half of which were earned at the free throw line. “I was telling the guys in the huddle, ‘It’s not over!’ And they came back.”
It was another lesson for the young Maryland team, which moves on to a far tougher opponent, hosting Illinois (5-0) Tuesday as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
While Turgeon didn’t hide his aggravation over his team’s lapse in the last 10 minutes, he made clear that he was proud of his players’ overall effort and the strides they had made since losing two of three games in last week’s Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
“Defensively we were much better,” Turgeon said. “Our transition defense was much better. And I was really pleased at the start of the second half, the way we built that [lead] up. If we had just handled the pressure . . . and then we got fatigued.”
Added senior guard Sean Mosley: “We executed our offense a lot better than we did in Puerto Rico. We played together more so as a team. And we did the little things coach has been on us about” — rebounding and team defense, in particular.
Mosley finished with six points, seven rebounds and three assists despite rolling an ankle during the game. James Padgett was the only Terrapins player other than Stoglin in double figures (11 points).
Turgeon make a few notable tweaks to his rotation, starting 6-foot-10 center Berend Weijs for the first time this season. And he rewarded John Auslander with a season-high 20 minutes, praising Auslander’s work ethic in practice and his command of the plays.
A 6-foot-7 sophomore, Auslander started the season as a walk-on but has since been awarded a scholarship, bringing the Terps’ ranks of available scholarship players to eight.
Mosley got the Terps on the board with a jumper.
Stoglin struggled with his shooting early, but finally hit from long range to put Maryland up, 19-13.
A flagrant foul by Eagles freshman Bernard Thompson lit a fire under the Terps, who reeled off five consecutive points. Maryland took a 34-27 lead at halftime.
A mishandled pass led to an easy basket for Florida Gulf Coast to open the second half, but Mosley hit a jumper on the next possession to restore order.
Then came a muscular sequence, with Auslander and Padgett combining on strong baskets and Nick Faust following with a dunk to make it 43-30.
Weijs got a tip-in followed by a nifty turnaround jumper on an inbounds play, and the announced crowd of 12,080 cheered, the Terps up 52-36 with a little more than 13 minutes remaining.
But just when the game seemed in hand, the Eagles went on a 9-2 run. They trailed by four, 70-66, with 47 seconds left.
“It’s a steppingstone,” Mosley said. “We just have to take small steps to be where we want to be.”