Through seven games, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon stuck with the same starting lineup, a veteran-laden bunch, with younger teammates entering from the bench. Turgeon could tinker from there, working with combinations and coaching by feel.
But an entirely different group found themselves huddling after pregame introductions Wednesday evening at Comcast Center. James Padgett and Dez Wells were the two holdovers, starting their eighth straight game, joined by Jake Layman, Seth Allen and Shaquille Cleare, three of the Terrapins’ freshmen quartet. Pe’Shon Howard, Alex Len and Nick Faust would come off the bench for the first time.
After the 100-68 blowout of overmatched Maryland-Eastern Shore, Turgeon said umprompted: “To answer your question about the starting lineup, no one was in trouble. You never know what lies ahead. I want everyone to know what it feels like to start in a game. I’ve never done that before, but I’ve never had a team like this that really likes each other like this team does, and has the depth like this team has. I know there’s no bruised egos because I did that.”
Turgeon will trot out a different lineup Saturday against South Carolina State, but this platoon-based system worked perfectly against the Hawks, one of the nation’s worst Division I teams. Maryland’s starters surged to a 20-13 lead in less than seven minutes, utilizing crisp passes and working through Cleare on the blocks.
After Howard, Len, Faust, Charles Mitchell and Logan Aronhalt checked in, the lead ballooned to 17 points through a deft transition game and snowballed into Maryland’s largest margin of victory since Feb. 9, 2011.
“Confidence. Togetherness. Smiling faces,” Turgeon said when asked about his takeaways from the Terrapins’ seventh straight win since a season-opening loss to Kentucky. “It’s fun to see them cheering for their teammates, to see the group we have. Ten years ago I’d have gone crazy over our defense, just ruined the moment, but I know they’re going to guard for me in practice and they’re going to guard like crazy on Saturday, because they’ve proven they can do it, they’ve done it every game except the first half of Kentucky and today.”
The unpredictable substitution patterns provided the only drama in Maryland’s return home after an undefeated week with wins at Northwestern and against George Mason at Verizon Center.
Cleare had 10 points by the break and finished with 12, along with two monstrous blocks that the freshman sent sailing into the seats. Aronhalt finished with a team-high 17 points, while Layman and Faust had 10 apiece. Faust, running the point with Howard limited to nine minutes by a stomach ailment, had a career-high seven assists.
Cupcake games like these won’t roll around once Maryland’s ACC schedule begins in January, but taking care of business early is a good sign for a group that has struggled to put away inferior nonconference opponents before halftime.
“We just want to make ourselves better,” said Mitchell, who recorded his second career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. “We look at these games as ones to make Maryland basketball better, so when we go to ACC play, our overall game will have changed.”
All phases were operating at full capacity against the hapless Hawks (0-8). Aronhalt hit 5 of 7 three-pointers, spotting up with efficiency in the alleys on secondary fast breaks. The Terps, which entered shooting .306 from three-point range, made 10 of 20 from beyond the arc. Seth Allen had eight assists against two turnovers, and Maryland had 27 assists on 38 field goals.
The cheers from the announced crowd of 9,813 became sporadic, almost expectant of the breakaway dunks and uninhibited Terps scoring that defined the second half. And so instead they cheered for a Comcast Center employee mopping up sweat from the hardwood; when little-used Barks, Conner Lipinski and Jacob Susskind all entered with 2 minutes 15 seconds left; when four Lipinski free throws gave the team 100 points; and when the clock mercifully hit zero and Maryland jogged into the locker room, another night of business officially finished.