When Logan Aronhalt was a freshman at Albany, the end never seemed to come. His body ached. His mind throbbed. A debilitating 7-25 record didn’t help, either. Utterly drained, Aronhalt longed for summer, and with it freedom.
Aronhalt’s current teammates on the Maryland men’s basketball team are unaccustomed to such late-season drudgery, and might be experiencing something similar. The team features four freshmen, only months removed from a shorter high school schedule, and three sophomores, only one of whom — Dez Wells — has ever experienced a postseason tournament. Even Aronhalt, in his fifth and final college season, needs to stretch at halftime, simply to keep his aching back loose.
“Just playing in the tournament and winning in a tournament, whether NCAA or NIT, any postseason tournament is difficult,” Aronhalt said Tuesday night after scoring 15 points in the Terrapins’ 86-70 win over Niagara in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. “But to really bring it at this point at this time in the year is big for us, and to learn how to make yourself keep going and enjoy it, it’s going to be a great experience for all of us.”
Motivation won’t be a problem for Thursday night’s second-round game against Denver (22-9), as even an NIT championship is worth fighting for. But the weary Terps must deal with a palpable lack of energy, both from themselves and from the Comcast Center crowd.
With the $25 ticket price — among the highest in the country for an NIT game — and an NCAA tournament snub still lingering, only 4,053 were on hand for Maryland’s win over Niagara, the fewest ever to witness a men’s basketball game at Comcast Center. Those present still danced and cheered and ragged on the referees, but Maryland could manage only a tie with the Purple Eagles at halftime.
“Little bit of everything,” point guard Pe’Shon Howard said of the reasons behind the slow start. “A little tired, a little anxious, them making shots and making plays, and being the tougher team. They were getting every loose ball, making every play, being the aggressor. Then we said: ‘Enough is enough. We’re going to stop this.’ That was the main thing, just determination and will.”
That Maryland has progressed into a team that can indeed say “enough is enough” and actually mean it represents a small victory. Earlier this season, the Terrapins likely would have stumbled, never quite pulling away or even collapsing in crunch time.
Defensive intensity helps, like Howard’s on-ball smothering along the perimeter. Or a four-guard diamond press that rarely forces steals, but converts turnovers into easy dunks when it does. So does reaching the free throw line: Maryland converted 12 of its 15 foul shots in the second half against the Purple Eagles after attempting only four in the first.
“Five games in 10 days in three different cities, “Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Grueling, emotional games. It’s tough. It shows you we’re getting mentally tough to come out and play the way we did tonight.”
Discipline will be paramount against the Pioneers, the nation’s second-slowest team according to Kenpom.com. Coach Joe Scott runs the Princeton offense, with relentless ball movement and deft back cuts that bleed the clock in search of high-percentage shots. Six players average at least 1.5 assists per game. The team shoots 56.4 percent on two-pointers. Denver also rarely commits turnovers, committing just 11.1 per game, and forces plenty (15.8 per game, ranking 24th nationally).
The Terps, meanwhile, average nearly 15 turnovers per game. Their aggressive defensive rotation is vulnerable to back cuts, too. But Maryland has hacked away at its deficiencies in recent weeks, playing its best basketball just in time for a tournament run.
“Our tears flowed after North Carolina,” Turgeon said about Maryland’s loss to the Tar Heels in the ACC tournament semifinals. “We knew it. We can go back and talk about all the opportunities at the end of the season that we blew it. So before we left the locker room at North Carolina I said: ‘Guys, who knows. The basketball gods might shine on us. They probably won’t, and if not we’re in the NIT.’ In it to win it. We’ll try to win this sucker.”