Dominant Dez leads Terps past Wake Forest in ACC Tournament opener, 75-62

Streeter Lecka

Dez Wells drops 21 as strong second half leads Maryland to a comeback romp over Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC Tournament.

Maryland's often struggled this year to put together a solid 40 minutes of basketball. Going by their game against Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, it's still a problem - but man, when they're on, they can really do some damage.

The Terps suffered through a poor, lackluster first half, entering halftime trailing by five, and alarm bells started to go off in College Park. But whatever Mark Turgeon said or did at halftime, it worked: led by Dez Wells' game-high 21 points, Maryland won the second half by an 18-point margin, controlling the ball well, forcing turnovers, playing disciplined defense, and most of all just plain making shots. It was a dominant showing, with the Terps looking energetic, focused, and passionate (three qualities that were lacking in the first half, but it's better late than never). All told, it was as good a half as we've seen Maryland play this year, right up there with the Virginia first half, and it was enough to top the Deacs 75-62 and advance to the second round.

It was a sloppy beginning for both teams, with the score at just 6-3 at the under-16 and 11-7 at the under-12. But it was Wake Forest who found their footing first, going on a 14-4 run midway through the first that vaulted them into a seven-point lead. Maryland was flat and completely outexecuted, on both ends of the floor, by a Wake Forest team that hadn't been able to execute all year long. The Deacs went into half with a 35-30 lead, and deserved it.

The Terps didn't have the same issues in the second half: they came out firing, playing much more aggressive and energetic out of the gate. They forced a few turnovers that turned into easy fast break points - including some spectacular jams and passing moves on the fast break - and helped engineer a 9-2 run at the start of the half, getting them right back in the game. The two teams jockeyed back and forth for most of the second half, but then Maryland did something a bit unusual, given their history: they put the game to bed.

Maryland took a 56-54 lead at the 7:19 mark. From then on, they allowed only eight Wake Forest points - only four of which actually came from field goals, with the Terps' defense suffocating down the stretch. Meanwhile, they figured out how to play on the other end, scoring 19 and putting the game well and truly to bed. It's something the Terps have struggled with at times this year, but they at least managed to do it tonight, and it was a solid way to cap what was easily one of the better twenty minutes of basketball we've seen from the Terps this year. And it was good enough to get them past the Deacs and into the next round - where Duke awaits.

I'll start with the negative here, which is that once again Maryland struggled through at least one truly poor half. And the first half was poor: they were flatfooted and outplayed, and Wake made them pay. A better team would've made them pay even more, and wouldn't have been so lenient about letting the Terps get into it. Until Maryland learns how to play 40 minutes of consistent basketball, good teams will prosper against them - just like UNC did, just like Virginia did, and just like Boston College did.

But man, that second half had plenty of positives on show. It reminded you that Dez Wells has the potential to be an elite player at this level - still probably not exactly a go-to scorer, but a difference-maker in a number of ways and a dangerous offensive weapon. It showed that the Terps can, believe it or not, actually play under control, smart basketball: the half started with a dazzling (nigh-Barcelonian) fast break passing move, and, incredibly, finished with all of three Maryland turnovers, two of which came in the closing moments well after the game was decided. It updated the progress of Seth Allen, who finished with 11 points and no turnovers. And it showcased the quiet resurgence of Pe`Shon Howard, who had one of his best games of the season: 10 points on 3-3 shooting from the field, 2 assists, no turnovers, and top-notch defense on C.J. Harris. You can see Howard's swagger returning in everything he does; earlier in the year he looked lost, but now he seems confident and assured. He has the potential to be a very important player for a Maryland team desperate for a point guard; if he can recapture even how he played as a freshman, this would be a very different team.

Not to be a wet blanket, but of course we did see a similar showing against Virginia just a few days ago in the first half, only to see that flashes of brilliance don't equate to actual brilliance. Not yet, anyway. We've seen enough false dawns to know that. Duke will bring a different sort of challenge, one that may prove too difficult for this team. But for a team and a fanbase that needed a dose of optimism, well, I won't blame anyone for indulging themselves a bit.

Next on the docket is Duke, a team that's flying high with Ryan Kelly and looking darn tough to beat. One game at a time, though: Maryland will get a crack at them, and see what they can do. At this point, that's all you want.

See you back here tomorrow, 7:00 sharp.

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