Tonight's win over Duke represented more than just a game between two ACC teams in the middle of conference play. It represented a breakthrough win for a young team that's struggled over the past few weeks. It was a win over one of the blue blood schools in the conference Maryland is departing in just over a year. It was a win over Duke, in what might be their last visit to College Park. The atmosphere inside the Comcast Center was the best I've ever seen. There was a buzz in the air well before tipoff and that buzz continued throughout the game. The students were great, well coordinated (A+ on the various coordinated dance moves and slow wave), and everyone else was on their feet cheering from opening tip until seemingly every student was on the court at Comcast celebrating.
"I said it to the radio, our fans were great from beginning to end" head coach Mark Turgeon said following his team's win over the Blue Devils. "Passionate. I told our players before the game there is a lot of pride in Maryland basketball. A lot of pride. We didn't perform well last week and for them to show up in droves, and I know it was Duke, students lining up, coming early, there's a lot of pride. And there's also a lot of passion about Maryland basketball. So we talked about pride and passion and playing with those two things tonight, for us and for our fans. Our fans were just tremendous. Never quit, never had a doubt we were going to win the game."
You could tell how much this win meant for Turgeon and the team, not necessarily for the impact it had on their chances of making the NCAA tournament, but rather that they finally broke through and playing their style of team basketball, earning a big win despite turning the ball over 26 times.
"I'm just really proud of my kids. I worked them really hard this week and challenged them in a lot of different areas" Turgeon said. "I told them before the game you don't have to do anything extraordinary, you just have to play to our level. We weren't extraordinary all the time, but we played to our level. We continued to compete. For our young guys, for our young team, it's one thing to play Duke close; it's another thing to beat them. We figured out how to beat them by two. It's a great win for us."
It was also Mark Turgeon's biggest win in his tenure in College Park, coming during an up and down season, one that clearly has had an emotional impact on him. After praising the fans and talking about his team's effort, Turgeon admitted that it's been a rough couple of days on him and his family.
"It has been a hard week. I take a lot of pride in my coaching. I don't do a lot of things well, but I like to think that I can coach a little bit, and I haven't done a very good job. It has been a hard week on my family, hard on my son last week. He had to leave the stands because the fans were so hard on his dad. This win was for my family and the fans. I know what this win means for our fan base and I really wanted to beat Duke. This means a lot to me. Over the summer I said if we beat Duke I am going to be in the stands with our fans."
If you saw Turgeon after Cook's shot clanked off the back of the iron, giving Maryland the win, he was jumping in the air and pumping his fist much like his predecessor, Gary Williams would do following an important win. Ever since his introductory press conference, I've thought Maryland made a slam dunk hire with Turgeon. I still think that today, without a doubt. There has been some criticism of Turgeon lately with the team's struggles. I personally don't think it's justified but more the product of a young team who's playing without a true, ACC caliber point guard. The biggest mistake Turgeon has made as a coach this season was not curbing expectations for this team sooner. Could they still make the tournament? Very much so, especially after tonight. But this is still an extremely young team who's going to make mistakes that cause you to pull your hair out. Sometimes the only cure for those struggles is experience. In this age, if something doesn't go as you expect, it seems like someone has to get the blame. This season, that blame has been directed at Turgeon's coaching ability. Mark Turgeon is a great coach. Fantastic. And no one is going to be a bigger critic of him than himself. Will he make mistakes? Sure and he'll be the first to admit when he does. But I hope those who have been critical of him can take a step back and appreciate that he's a pretty damn good coach and that he's done and is continuing to do anything he can think of to make this team better.
For example, look at how he motivated Alex Len to play with determination and focus tonight, something Len has struggled with recently: "I challenged Alex [Len] about being Mason Plumlee's little brother. He treats you like a little brother. He said I am tired of being a little brother since I have been here. It's time for us to step up and act like one of the big guys on the block." The result? 19 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks for Len, who had arguably his best game since the opener against Kentucky.
Each Maryland player also shot 500 free throws this week, after the team had struggled from the charity strip in recent games. "We shot 7,000 free throws this week. We still weren't great but it was a better percentage." They finished the game shooting 73.5% from the line.
"Coach told us we had to make 500 free throws as individuals before this game, so I just got comfortable in my routine and tried to knock them down." said freshman Seth Allen, who finished with 16 points, including the game's winning free throws with 2.8 seconds left. When asked how many of the 500 attempted free throws he made, Allen responded with a very precise "427, I think."
Maryland seemed determined to shut down Duke's Mason Plumlee, who scored 19 against the Terps when the teams met in Cameron Indoor a few weeks ago. "We were just trying to execute defensively and force them to take tough shots" senior James Padgett said. "We played big bodies on him like Shaq [Cleare] to make him go through us and not just around us; so I think that's what helped us out a lot."
Plumlee fouled out of the game and finished with just 4 points.
"This was a great win for me personally, as well as the team" Padgett said when asked about where this win ranks in his career at Maryland. "We beat Duke at home. I was a big part of it and a lot of the young guys stepped up. It could be a great momentum booster for going into the rest of the ACC. The guys are maturing, getting better, understanding the game and getting more acclimated to it. There's a lot of basketball to be played. We just have to take every game one at a time and continue to get better, continue to work hard, be committed, be committed to the team."
"We were getting stops [early] and that gave us confidence" sophomore Alex Len said. " We were really good on the defensive end."
Despite the win, Maryland still struggled with turnovers, committing 26 against the Blue Devils Saturday evening. When asked if he'd have believed someone before the game if they told him the Terps would commit 26 turn overs and win, sophomore Nick Faust said "I would have said you're lying. But we got a win, so that's all that matters."
After going up by 10 twice in the 2nd half, Maryland quickly let Duke back into the game by not taking care of the ball and you wondered if the Terps' inexperience was going to get the best of them. But Maryland held together, despite Duke tying the game with just 16 seconds left.
"Sometimes the younger guys let things like this overwhelm them, like the crowd. We just try to do what we can to help them." Faust said. "Just tell them to stay calm and let things happen."
Let things happen is exactly what Maryland did on the last play, one that was designed to go to Alex Len. But when Seth Allen saw an opening at the top of the key, he drove to the basket and drew the foul, eventually making what were the game winning free throws.
"We set a double screen for Logan [Aronhalt] on the baseline" Turgeon said when asked about the final play. "Told him they were going to switch, which they did. Jake [Layman] went right into a cross screen for Alex [Len]. I told Seth [Allen] if the switch you throw it right to Alex. There was a lot of holding and grabbing going on, which happens late in the game. Seth just went by him and got all the way to the rim. We drove the ball, we have lost a couple of games where we shot jump shots but we drove it and got to the line. The kid grew up tonight."
It did appear to me that the kids did grow up tonight. Seth was thrown to the fire but still came back and made big plays. The young front court shut down one of the ACC's best in Mason Plumlee. They overcame many, many miscues and multiple runs by Duke. But in the end, they emerged with a much needed victory, one that they, along with Maryland fans, get to savor and enjoy for possibly the last time in College Park.