Maryland's inability to close out games has become the overarching theme of what has been a disappointing season. As the Terps close out the regular season with a pair of home games, coach Mark Turgeon is hoping that his team can reverse its recent stretch of agonizing defeats.
The arrival of last-place Virginia Tech (9-19, 2-14 Atlantic Coast Conference) on Tuesday night might be enough for Maryland (15-14, 7-9) to wipe out the memory of Sunday's 77-73 double-overtime loss at Clemson, the Terps' third defeat by four points or less in their past four games.
But if the game is close — as a number involving both teams have been lately — the Terps will need to make the kind of plays at key moments that have eluded them for most of the season, painfully so in recent losses at then-No. 8 Duke (69-67) on Feb. 15 and at home to then-No. 4 Syracuse (57-55) on Feb. 24.
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Though his team's record doesn't show it, Turgeon said on Monday's ACC coaches' teleconference that the Terps have improved in a number of areas that typically produce victories in close games.
"We're defending better, we're rebounding better, we're executing better, we're doing a lot of things better," Turgeon said. "If you look at some film, whether it was at Virginia, where we played well down the stretch, at Duke we played well down the stretch, at Syracuse we played well down the stretch.
"[Sunday] we played well defensively down the stretch, we just didn't make shots. I guess when the time comes [for a close game], it's playing with confidence. Our guys are reslient. We continue to practice hard. ... I think it's [a matter of] having guys play consistently better from game to game. I think that will help our cause."
After watching a nine-point lead with 4:38 left in the first half turn into a one-point deficit by halftime, the Terps came from five points down early in the second half to lead by four, 54-50, on a breakaway layup by sophomore guard Seth Allen with a little more than five minutes left in regulation.
Maryland didn't score again until the first overtime but forced a second overtime on a 3-pointer shot by Evan Smotrycz with nine seconds left. The Terps took a 67-64 lead in the second OT on a 3-pointer by Allen with a little over four minutes left.
"I thought we were going to win it," said Allen, who led the Terps with 20 points. "We made a lot of big plays late in the end of [regulation] and the first overtime, and in the last overtime we got big stops. It just comes down to one or two possessions."
The Terps are 3-6 this season in games decided by four points or less. Since Lefty Driesell took over in College Park in 1969, only one team in Maryland history has played more games decided by that margin.
Driesell's 1984-85 team played 12 games decided by four points or less. Maryland won eight of them and finished the season 25-12, ending with a three-point defeat to eventual national champion Villanova in the Sweet 16.
Speaking by telephone Monday, Driesell suggested that winning close games is more about kids making plays than coaches setting up perfect situations.
"A lot these shots guys make shots at the end of the games [and] you hear the announcer say, 'They ran a great play,' Mostly it's just one on one and see what happens," Driesell said. "That shot the kid from Clemson [C.J. McDaniels] blocked [on Dez Wells], Mark [Turgeon] couldn't do anything about that. A of what happens end of games is just luck."
Though Driesell said he couldn't remember the specifics, there was a stretch during the 1984-85 season when Maryland played five straight games decided by four points or less, including one-point losses to Georgia Tech and North Carolina. In a five-day span, the Terps lost to the No. 5 Tar Heels in Chapel Hill by one point and beat the No. 2 Blue Devils by two in College Park in overtime.
"It's tough, you got to forget about [the losses]," said Driesell, who was an impressive 54-32 in games decided by four points or less in his 17 years at Maryland. "A lot of times, when we'd get blown out, I wouldn't even show them the film. In a game that's really close, one or two points, I'd probably just show them the end of the game."
Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose Cavaliers clinched the ACC regular season championship with a blowout win over Syracuse on Saturday, said Monday that a team's confidence can grow — or waver — depending on how it fares in end-of-game situations.
"The more success you have in that situation, you hope it gives you that confidence that you don't get as pressed or rushed in your mind when you're in that circumstance," Bennett said. "There is a carryover, and I think it's very important."
Driesell said he took a technique from legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith in helping his team prepare for end-of-game situations.
"Every day in practice, play a five-minute overtime, so you're used to close-game situations," Driesell said. "A lot of times, I'd put them in close-game situations — down one with one with 30 seconds to go. You've got to practice them if you keep losing. You've got to study it, practice it and work on their mind and tell them, 'We're going to win the next one.'"