Maryland had all kinds of excuses why it barely beat Monmouth on Friday night.
The loss of leading scorer Dez Wells with a broken wrist was a big reason. The letdown after beating No. 13 Iowa State to win the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Mo., also played a part.
None of those factored into what began to transpire Sunday night at Xfinity Center when the Terps found themselves trailing hot-shooting VMI late in the first half and unable the shake the Keydets early in the second half. It came down to playing the kind of defense they had demonstrated in their first six wins.
When the defense kicked in midway through the second half, the Keydets keeled over. Led by a rejuvenated Richaud Pack’s 22 points and four others in double figures, Maryland pulled away from VMI for a 95-77 victory to continue the team’s best start in eight years.
“We might not be the best defensive team in the country, but we’re pretty good,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We were going to win this game on defense, we weren’t going to win it with our offense. …
“Our guys were just dialed in, more active, more deflections, better team defense. They know how to play defense, and when they decide to it, we’re pretty good.”
Though the week included one of Turgeon’s biggest wins since coming to Maryland (7-0) four years ago, it was overshadowed by the loss of Wells for the next month and was further complicated when Evan Smotrycz, who returned Friday after missing a month with a broken left foot, “tweaked” his left ankle Sunday and did not play in the second half.
“Obviously when we walked off the court in Kansas City, I was like, ‘Man we were really good, and then I couldn’t even enjoy it for 24 hours [before] they tell me his [Wells’] wrist was broken,” Turgeon said. “You had an emotional high and then an emotional low for the team.
“I thought we were pretty flat the whole game Friday because of it. I thought we were better [Sunday]. You’ve got to give VMI a lot credit, the way they played. But then Evan [Smotrycz] goes down [reinjuring his foot], Jake’s in foul trouble. … Guys just stepped up.”
Pack certainly did. The 6-foot-3 fifth-year senior guard, who had missed 13 straight shots over the last three games, finished 10 of 14 from the field Sunday, all of them on drives, follows and layups. He also added seven rebounds and three assists.
Freshman guards Melo Trimble and Dion Wiley, as well as junior forward Jake Layman, added 19 points each. Layman had a team-high nine rebounds.
It was Pack who set the tone by driving early and often to the basket.
“We didn’t practice long [Saturday], but we talked about that, one of our emphasises was a good to a great, and don’t settle, and he probably followed that better than everybody,” Turgeon said of Pack. “We scored 66 points in the paint and probably another 18 at the line. The guys listened.”
After making a layup on Maryland’s first possession, Wiley didn’t score again in the first half and had two turnovers. During halftime, Turgeon talked to the 6-4 guard about being more aggressive and continuing to use his speed and athleticism to get to the basket.
Wiley wound up hitting 7 of 8 shots in the second half, all of them on drives. Known as a 3-point shooter coming out of high school, Wiley said he had never played a game without hitting an outside shot.
“It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I could get to the rim,” he said.
Said Turgeon: “He wasn’t very good in the first half. So I sat him down at halftime and I talked to him. I thought he made better decisions, good decisions, in the second half. His first bucket of the second half wasn’t just going up soft, he went up strong, took the blow and finished.”
What Trimble did against VMI (2-4) has become almost expected from the former McDonald’s All-American. Named Most Valuable Player in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, Trimble held off Monmouth almost singlehandedly by hitting eight straight free throws in the last 45 seconds among his team-high 24 points.
Against VMI, Trimble hit all six shots he took from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, as well as five of six from the free-throw line. The only negative was that Trimble had more turnovers (a team-high six) than assists (four) to go along with three steals.
Another freshman, 7-1 center Michal Cekovsky, had what Turgeon called “his best game” Sunday, finishing with 10 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots, despite coming out briefly early in the second half with what was called a sprained left ankle.
The victory ended a stretch of four games in seven days for a team that now will look ahead to potentially its most challenging matchup of the season when the Terps play No. 8 Virginia on Wednesday night in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge at home.
It will mark Maryland’s first game against a team from its former league since leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference after 61 years over the summer.
“We’re taking tomorrow completely off, physically and mentally we need it,” Turgeon said. “We’ll have one day to prepare for a Top 10 team in the country. We’ll see. I just want guys to get healthy. Our guys play with poise, they really do. … We keep figuring it out, and hopefully we can keep doing it.”