Over their last several games, even ones they lost, Maryland has found themselves in position to win. At Duke, in one of the hardest environments to pick up a road win, they were a Charles Mitchell basket (or incorrect possession arrow) away from winning. They played well, but not quite well enough on the road against Virginia and North Carolina. The team still has obvious flaws, but you got a sense that they were starting to play better.
So when Maryland was set to take on Wake Forest at home Tuesday night, many expected Maryland to easily handle the Demon Deacons, who have been really struggling. One of the things the Terps have done rather consistently in the second half of the season is beat up on lesser competition. Instead, they came out flat and looked tired on Tuesday, possibly fatigued still from their game on Saturday against Duke.
"Some guys were definitely a little tired," sophomore Jake Layman said following Tuesday night's win. "A little fatigue showed up there. We fought through it."
Head coach Mark Turgeon acknowledged that his team came out flat to start the game, but was happy with how they responded.
"I'm proud of my group. We didn't have it early, it was pretty obvious," Turgeon said following his team's 71-60 win. "We just kept fighting and competing."
After Maryland led by four in the early part of the game, Wake went on an 15-3 run and opened up an eight point lead on the Terps midway through the half, in front of what was a sparse crowd of 10,665 at the Comcast Center.
"At about the 12-minute timeout of the first half, we talked about being tougher," Turgeon said.
"You may be a little tired or a little fatigued, but you got to toughen up. It shows you we're getting somewhere because we didn't play particularly well throughout the game, but we still were in control in the second half. We're coming. You become a good team when you don't play particularly well and you're still in control."
Toughen up they did. Maryland then went on a 9-3 run, led by Nick Faust, who finished the game with a career high 20 points. He also had five rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal on the night.
As he's been doing for the last several games, Faust came off the bench and scored 11 of those 20 points in the first half, including a three as time was winding down, providing a much needed spark for the Terps.
"Nick missed his first one and then he was terrific," Turgeon said. "The one he made before half was huge. It put us up five. He was terrific. I thought his passing was great and his defense was great. He looked fresh. He played 32 minutes and made free throws, rebounded and did a lot of good things."
Faust's play has been one of the reasons why Maryland has been performing better as a team. He's doing great as the first man off the bench and, for the most part, has been playing within his abilities, taking the shots that are available to him, and not trying to do too much.
"I was just feeling it," Faust said after the game. "I missed my first two, but I just stuck with it."
Maryland showed that they can win even when they're not playing at their best or have to battle through fatigue. They've shown they can hang with some of the big boys. They've shown continued improvement over the last several weeks. But is it too little, too late for their NCAA Tournament hopes?
With a 15-12 overall record and a 7-7 mark in the ACC, Maryland finds themselves in a position they didn't expect to be in at the start of the season; on the outside of the NCAA Tournament. They have four regular season games remaining to try to catapult themselves into consideration, likely needing to win all four to do so, barring a remarkable run through the ACC tournament. That final stretch begins next Monday, when the #1 ranked Syracuse Orange travel to College Park for their first and last game as ACC foes.
When asked about playing Syracuse, Nick Faust said "They're a great team. We have a lot of time before we play them. We're looking forward to practicing and getting better."
In order to beat Syracuse, Maryland will have to play as well as, if not better than they did at Cameron Indoor last Saturday. They've shown they can play with some of the best, but now they have to show that they can do more than remain competitive against those teams; they have to go out and win.