As fans who prepared to storm the court Sunday at Comcast Center slowly returned to their seats, one thought hung in the air: The Maryland men’s basketball team had done it again. Maryland often finishes poorly, and the team had perhaps its most deflating closing act toward the end of regulation against fifth-ranked Virginia.
But during their final regular season game in the ACC, the Terrapins finally showed some progress by outperforming the conference’s regular season champion in overtime of an emotional 75-69 victory. Virginia had no answers in overtime for aggressive point guard Seth Allen, who scored the first five points of the extra session and played the biggest role in ensuring the sellout crowd of 17,950 celebrated as planned, albeit a little later than expected.
“It’d have been devastating had we lost another” close game, Coach Mark Turgeon said, summing up the feeling of Terrapins fans everywhere.
Players received hugs and high-fives from fans who danced around them, and even the coach cracked a smile. The season has been particularly hard on Turgeon — the team took a step backward in his third season in College Park and Maryland’s 61st and last in the ACC — but the Terrapins still have this week’s conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and could play in another postseason tournament before they bolt for the Big Ten. Turgeon should use Sunday’s victory as a teaching tool for the remainder of the season and beyond.
Against a strong opponent, Maryland showed it actually can produce clutch plays. The Terrapins proved they’re capable of making sound decisions with the basketball. And Allen reminded us that when he focuses mainly on scoring, he possesses the potential to be special.
Of course, Turgeon knows all of that. He sees the Terrapins play well in practice. The Terrapins, however, have rarely offered proof where it matters most: in games. At times Sunday, we understood why Turgeon maintains the Terrapins (17-14, 9-9 ACC) are more talented than their record would indicate.
Let’s start with Allen, who sped past Cavaliers players from start to finish and scored a game-high 20 points. He’s a proven scorer.
Unfortunately for Maryland, Allen is not a true point guard and can be downright scary as a playmaker. He makes poor decisions consistently, which isn’t a good trait for someone in charge of directing Maryland’s offense.
But when Allen shows the determination he did Sunday in getting into the lane, he’s definitely good enough to help Maryland. Guard Dez Wells is, too.
Like Allen, Wells would benefit from being more deliberate with the ball. Wells was in good form against Virginia, scoring 18 points while also applying pressure by driving into the lane. Allen and Wells energized the crowd, and “the atmosphere was really good for us,” Wells said. “It made it a tough game for Virginia.
“They’re a good team on the road and at home. For us to win our last ACC game at home [against Virginia] is a pretty cool thing to be a part of.”
In a familiar story, things didn’t look good for the Terrapins late in regulation. They led by as many as eight points early in the second half and were ahead, 64-61, with just 4.1 seconds to play after Jake Layman made two free throws.
Turgeon instructed Maryland to foul quickly, which was the textbook move to prevent Virginia from attempting a three-pointer.
“I don’t ever foul [in that scenario] . . . but I did it backwards,” Turgeon said. “I said, ‘I’m going to do things backwards today because we haven’t won any close games.’ ”
Naturally, the move backfired. Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon made the first free throw, intentionally missed the second and then the ball was slapped out of bounds with 1.7 seconds showing on the game clock. On the inbound play, Anthony Gill caught the pass and scored to force overtime. “They ran a great play,” Turgeon said.
It would have been easy for Maryland to crumble in overtime. They had come totally unglued in similar situations. Instead, they came together.
“We knew what we had to do,” Wells said. “We had a chance to win before overtime. . . . When we came back in the huddle we said, ‘We’re not letting this go. We had too many games this year decided by a couple of points. We have to go out here and take this win.’ ”
The Terrapins took it to the Cavaliers (25-6, 16-2 ACC), whose winning streak ended at 13 games. Even if the Cavaliers win the ACC tournament title, Sunday’s loss probably ended their bid to receive a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament.
And Maryland may have provided a blueprint on how to beat Virginia in postseason play. The Cavaliers definitely must shore up their defense against penetration.
“We did a poor job in that way,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “They’re good off the bounce. They did a good job spacing, attacking. When they can get to the rim like that, it changes [the game].”
One victory won’t erase all of the Terrapins’ mistakes in a disappointing season. Turgeon knows that. But at the end of games, Turgeon has been searching for something to feel good about. At the close of Maryland’s last regular season in the ACC, he finally found it.