Before Maryland met 14th-ranked N.C. State last night at Comcast Center, Terps coach Mark Turgeon told his mostly young players, who had delivered consecutive off-target performances against Florida State and Miami, that it was time for them to win a memorable victory.
The game didn’t exactly unfold as Turgeon envisioned, but it was memorable all right.
The Terps jumped to a 10-0 lead but then halted as if tackled by the 2000 Ravens defense. From there, State outscored Maryland 50-39 until there was time for one final possession to pull off the upset.
Junior point guard Pe’Shon Howard, benched the previous game after starting the first 13, drove and launched a floater from the left side. The shot was well short of the rim, but Maryland’s 7-foot-1 big man was Alex on the spot. Len grabbed the ball and put it through the hoop with nine tenths of a second remaining.
Once the Wolfpack’s final desperation heave went awry, the raucous student sections stormed the court to celebrate the Terps’ first triumph over a ranked team in 18 tries since March 3, 2010 – back when Gary Williams was still crouching on the Comcast sideline instead of being honored at halftime as was the case last night.
“That’s exactly how I drew it up,” joked Turgeon, who succeeded Williams after the 2011 season, Maryland’s second out of the NCAA Tournament in a four-year stretch. “You have to be good and you have to be lucky. We were pretty lucky, [but] in the end it’s a win against a very good team. I don’t know what the problem is offensively. We executed better tonight. We were much more patient, but we just couldn’t finish and we weren’t getting to the foul line. … It was a grinder. It was a grinder against Florida State and Miami, [too, so] we were used to it. Our guys were determined to come out on top.”
That was the case even though only Howard and forward James Padgett, the lone senior, were part of the program for most of those 17 consecutive defeats against Top 25 opponents. And yet, Turgeon’s appeal to living up to Maryland’s proud basketball history resonated with his team even though they were all in elementary school when the Terps won the national championship in 2002.
“All week Coach talked about making a mark in history,” said baby-faced freshman shooting guard Seth Allen. “He’s always stressed that it takes hard work. I think we worked hard and got a great win tonight.”
It was from a pretty win as Maryland hit just 21 of 61 shots, 3 of 18 from behind the three-point arc, but that was enough as the Terps held the Wolfpack to 19 of 61 accuracy, 5 of 16 from long range.
“I didn’t come here to be mediocre, and I don’t think the players came here to be mediocre,” Turgeon said. “I asked them before the game why they came here. I told them I came here to be part of something that is much bigger than myself: Maryland basketball – tremendous tradition and a very storied program. I came here to do great things. We haven’t done a lot of great things since I have come here, but this is one great thing. Hopefully it will lead to a lot of other things.”
For now Turgeon hopes that his young team – he started Allen, Len, freshman big man Shaquille Cleare, sophomore guard Nick Faust and sophomore small forward Dez Wells, a transfer from Xavier, last night while bringing freshmen Charles Mitchell and Jake Layman and transfer Logan Aronhalt off the bench – uses the dramatic victory over State as a springboard into Saturday’s date at North Carolina which went 3-0 against Maryland last season.
The Tar Heels, who lost four starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, aren’t up to their usual standards, but they’re still 11-5 and they won 77-72 at Tallahassee just three days after the Seminoles had won 65-62 at College Park.
After the game at Chapel Hill and Tuesday’s visit from very beatable Boston College, comes the huge test at third-ranked Duke a week from Saturday and the change for revenge at Florida State on Jan. 30.
But for today, Turgeon and his Terps have to be relieved and happy that they didn’t let a second ACC home game slip away. After going 17-15 overall and 6-10 in the conference during the coach’s 2011-12 debut, Maryland is 14-3, 2-2. With two contests against BC, Wake Forest and Virginia and single games with Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia Tech (which Maryland clobbered 94-71 at home on Jan. 5) still to play, the Terps can realistically aim for at least 20 W’s, a .500 finish in the ACC and a return to the NCAAs.
“When you’re starting two freshmen, two sophomores, and a sophomore who wasn’t here last year it isn’t going to be easy,” Turgeon said.
Perhaps not. As analyst Chris Knoche said on the radio postgame show, the high-scoring pre-ACC laughers over such non-luminaries as Maryland-Eastern Shore and IUPUI weren’t an indication of what was to come. Maybe Maryland will play mostly “grinders” the rest of the way. But as long as they end like last night’s, Turgeon and Terps fans won’t complain.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin