Maryland’s last trip to New York City began in spectacle, with rap mogul Jay-Z sitting courtside as his hits boomed throughout the NBA’s newest attraction.
On the opposite bench at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center sat Kentucky, then ranked third nationally, expected to reload from a championship season with another unstoppable arsenal of lottery talent.
A three-point Terps loss, featuring a monstrous coming-out party from Alex Len, was viewed positively then. It meant promise. Even in its sloppiest of moments, Maryland could still hang with the mighty Wildcats.
That was nearly six months ago, an eternity by the college basketball calendar.
As Maryland marches into the Big Apple for Tuesday’s NIT semifinals against Iowa, it does so with a new identity. Losing to Kentucky begat a 13-game winning streak, which begat an uneven ACC regular season, which begat a postseason run that has the Terps playing into April, an unthinkable notion to Coach Mark Turgeon even four weeks ago.
“Yeah, we’re totally different,” Turgeon said Friday. “We know how to coach our team now. Our guys are confident. We feel good about ourselves. We started in New York, ending in New York. Playing into April sounds crazy.
“I’m really happy, because I was on them, not only in practice but publicly. I was like, ‘Are they ever going to grow up?’ Which I don’t usually do. And they’ve responded. They deserve this trip.”
For the first time since reeling off 13 straight from November to early January, the Terps own a three-game winning streak, capped off by Tuesday’s gritty win at Alabama.
Only a select few, however, have ever stepped before the lights of Madison Square Garden. Turgeon played there at Kansas, and coached there with Texas A&M. Senior James Padgett, a Brooklyn native, won a state championship there his senior season. He and Pe’Shon Howard also played in the 2010 2K Sports Classic, formerly known as the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
“It was pretty intense,” Howard said. “But I think playing in the Barclays Center might have been a little more intense, just because it was against Kentucky, it was the first game of the season, you had Jay-Z front row. I remember when we played in the Garden, [New York Jets cornerback] Darrelle Revis was there. So it’s the same type of atmosphere. This is what you come to Maryland for.”
Flash back to the morning of Nov. 9, 2012. The NCAA deemed Dez Wells eligible two days before, back when the sophomore was still a shell of his now-dominating self.
Len was hours away from a 23-point, 12-rebound game against Nerlens Noel that generated national buzz. Turgeon fretted over a roster of six newcomers, unsure how to coach the team, unaware of what lay ahead.
In what was then considered an upset bid, the Terps turned a 13-point halftime deficit into a one-possession game, despite Howard (1 for 8), Wells (2 for 12), Seth Allen (2 for 8) and Nick Faust (4 for 15) all struggling from the field. But a botched final play led to Howard’s air-balled three-point attempt and a vital lesson for this upcoming New York trip.
“I’ll remember to pass the ball,” Howard said, nodding and only slightly kidding. “That’s the main thing. When it comes down to the end of the game, I’ll remember to pass the ball.”
Late-game opportunities notwithstanding, returning to New York affords Maryland both a championship chance and a crack at vengeance.
Turgeon’s team has grown plenty since November. In a building their coach called “the mecca” for basketball players, the Terps can prove it.
“We’re playing great now,” Howard said. “It’d just be great for the team. I haven’t really thought about it for me. I thought about it for James, and just the young guys, to end the year on a great note. We came into the year with a lot of high expectations, maybe too high, but everyone knew how talented we could be. I think we’ll prove that, what we can live up to. I think that’s the main thing. Just having fun.”
Howard paused, offering an addendum.
“Hopefully missing a week of school too.”