As Maryland's 18-point lead dwindled to 14, 10 and finally three points, Terps fans were painfully reminded again that nothing seems to come easy this season for their young team.
The Terps have often made their coaches and fans squirm, and they did so again Wednesday night before holding on to beat Wake Forest, 70-64, in Maryland's first Atlantic Coast Conference home game of the season.
Despite the Terps' enduring some anxious moments in the second half, it was an important win for a Maryland team picked to finish near the bottom of the conference. Maryland (11-4, 1-1 ACC) is still defining itself -- developing in front of its fans' eyes -- and a win against an improving Wake Forest team felt like an important step.
First-year Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he rarely labels games "must-win." But he conceded that he felt especially passionate about winning this one. He believes his team is playing better -- particularly defensively -- than earlier in the season and he wants his players' efforts to be validated.
"This is the most nervous I've been since I've taken the job," said Turgeon, who appeared as relieved as he did happy. "It did mean something. It gives our guys confidence. They're proud of themselves in there. They know they're getting better."
Maryland led by 18 points in the first half, and 40-24 as the second half opened. The Terps played one of their best halves of the season, out-rebounding the Demon Deacons and holding their leading scorer, C.J. Harris, to two points.
But then Maryland -- which had lost almost all of a 23-point lead against Cornell on Jan. 3 -- went into another funk. Wake Forest's Travis McKie (25 points) got hot, and the Terps seemed to rush shots. Terrell Stoglin, the ACC's leading scorer, shot just 6-for-18, including 2-for-11 in the second half.
"We've seen that recipe before," Turgeon said of the second-half difficulties. "It's no fun going through that. You hope it goes away. You hope it doesn't become contagious."
He said the Terps handled their slide better than they did against Cornell because "there was no panic in us."
A pair of baskets by Wake Forest center Ty Walker cut Maryland's lead to 50-47.
Maryland continued to hold the lead largely because of forward James Padgett (11 points, eight rebounds), one of the conference's best offensive rebounders.
A putback by Padgett upped Maryland's advantage to 60-54 with 5:34 left. Another offensive rebound by Padgett resulted in two foul shots by the junior, extending the margin to 65-59.
Senior Sean Mosley (St. Frances) also had a big basket when he rebounded a missed free throw by Alex Len and converted a basket as the Demon Deacons threatened. "They was doubling Alex on the other side. I told him, 'I'll go low, you go high,'" Mosley said.
The putbacks were critical on a night when Stoglin -- who didn't start for the first time since Maryland's opening game -- shot poorly and recorded no assists for the second straight game.
"It's all about rebounding. They had the second-chance opportunities," McKie said.
Wake Forest's final threat came when it cut the lead to 66-62 on a free throw by Daniel Green in the final moments.
Maryland sealed the game on foul shots after that.
Turgeon opted not to start Stoglin, who was coming off a game in which he had 25 points but zero assists against North Carolina State. Stoglin had not started only one game previously -- against UNC-Wilmington -- at a time when Turgeon had expressed concern about the guard's defensive effort.
Stoglin entered Wednesday's game in the opening minutes. He finished with 20 points.
Turgeon would not disclose why Stoglin did not start, but it was evident the coach wanted to send a message.
"I'm trying to make Terrell a man, and his parents are on board with it and there are responsibilities outside of basketball that you have to do," Turgeon said.
Stoglin said he learned in practice that he would open the game on the bench.
"I wasn't angry about it. I just knew that when I came off the bench, I had to help the team win," he said.
Wake Forest won just one conference game last season under new coach Jeff Bzdelik but is 10-6 this season and beat Virginia Tech in its conference opener. The Demon Deacons have two of the ACC's top three scorers in Harris and McKie.
"We're starting to become a better basketball team and figure out ways to win games," Turgeon said. "Tonight, we did it with second-chance points and we got to the foul line, and that's a good formula to win."
twitter.com/sunjeffbarkerCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun