With 34 seconds left in Maryland's 66-56 win against Michigan Saturday, Mark Turgeon got to have some fun.
The Terrapins' fourth-year head coach had a 10-point lead on Senior Day, and he frantically turned toward the end of his bench. Play had stopped with a Maryland foul, and Turgeon pointed toward Jacob Susskind, Spencer Barks, Varun Ram and Trevor Anzmann – all seniors who rarely play. "Go," he mouthed, and pointed them toward Gary Williams Court.
So the four and Jon Graham, another senior, checked in for the Terrapins. And 17,950 screaming Marylanders, give or take, broke into a "Let's go seniors" chant, just as three other seniors – Dez Wells, Richaud Pack and Evan Smotrycz – walked off. Standing ovations abounded, whether the seniors were coming or going.
"'Oh, my gosh, we just want to get these kids in,'" Turgeon thought to himself. "We did just enough, got enough stops, made enough shots, we were able to get them in."
Turgeon didn't want to call a timeout, because that wouldn't have allowed his seniors to get a devoted applause from the crowd. So Maryland fouled intentionally, and the party at Xfinity Center began, a half-minute before the Terps officially moved to 9-0 at home in league play and 24-5 overall.
"You can't write it any better than that," Turgeon said. "It's just fun."
There was a time, for virtually all of these seniors, when it wasn't.
Susskind and Barks came to Maryland when Turgeon did four years ago and sat on the bench through three disappointing seasons before this one. Smotrycz transferred into the program from Michigan after the 2012 season ended and, along with Ram, waited out a year of ineligibility. Graham labored through two seasons on bad Penn State teams, then another one last year at Maryland. Pack played three seasons of small-time college ball before getting a major-conference look this year. And Wells, this team's emotional and longtime statistical leader, was expelled from Xavier three years ago under painful circumstances for several parties before landing in College Park, then being the best player on two underwhelming Maryland teams. His road to Saturday was as long as anybody's.
"I think I've matured a lot. I've become a lot more, you know, secure and comfortable with myself and the things I can do with the basketball, and how I can help my team," Wells said. "I found a lot about myself as a player and as a person. When you're growing up, you used to have to come into your own. I feel like that's something that this university and this program has helped me do."
He has had a challenging year offensively, at least from an efficiency standpoint. But Wells finished February with an 18-point average across seven starts, a scoring crescendo that has coincided with Maryland's five-game winning streak after it dropped three of the previous five. On another hand, Smotrycz has scored 13 points total in Maryland's last five games – including just one on Saturday – but he, too, is playing some of his finest basketball.
Last Tuesday, Smotrycz was key in limiting Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky to 18 points on 14 shots. On Saturday, Michigan threw the ball into the post against him time after time. And time after time, the Wolverines came up empty.
"I don't think they scored when they did, so I don't know why they kept doing that," Smotrycz said.
Smotrycz is having the worst offensive season of his career, strewn across two years apiece at Maryland and Michigan. But he's contributing heaps of quality minutes to a tournament-bound team anyway, something he last did for the Wolverines. His former coach took notice.
"Over the five years, he's certainly improved in a lot of different areas," Michigan coach John Beilein said, noting that Smotrycz played as a freshman on a Wolverines team that won the league a year after being picked to finish last in the Big Ten in preseason polls. "He was pretty good with us, not just with Maryland."
Barks and Susskind are the only two Maryland seniors who played with the Terrapins for four years. Wells, Smotrycz, Pack, Graham and Ram joined the program somewhere along the way. But all are there now, as Maryland heads toward its most anticipated postseason in at least half a decade.
"It's hard to tell," Turgeon said. "We still have a lot of basketball ahead of us."
No matter where this Maryland team goes, though, a remarkable turnaround season rolled on against Michigan. The Terps are 24-5, and they will end the year 18-1 overall at home. They have two more road games, at Rutgers and then Nebraska, before college basketball's second season begins. When it does, Maryland's seniors – and Wells in particular – will be as important as ever.
"They're just a group of great guys. They always have the best interest in the team," said freshman Jared Nickens, who buried a trio of three-pointers on Saturday. "They have good character on and off the court, competitive spirits. The list goes on and on. They're just great people. I'm glad I was able to play with them."
For at least a few more weeks, Nickens still has that chance.