This seemed like a perfect scenario for Maryland. The Terps were coming off a thrilling win that helped rebuild the shrinking confidence of second-year coach Mark Turgeon’s young team. Until recently, North Carolina had looked like Tar Heels of the past in their powder-blue and white uniforms only.
One problem: the Terps didn’t show up for the first half of Saturday’s game at the Dean Smith Center and the Tar Heels looked more like the kind of teams they have usually had dating back to the years when the legend whose name is on the building was still coaching. The result was a 22-point halftime deficit for Maryland that turned into a 62-52 defeat.
Except for sophomore swingman Dez Wells, who grew up in nearby Raleigh and was making his first trip to Tobacco Road as a college player, most of the Terps appeared overwhelmed by the environment — including an uncharacteristically raucous crowd of 20,865 — as well as by junior swingman Reggie Bullock, who outscored Maryland in the first half (21-20) en route to a career-high 24 points.
“We weren’t very good, it was pretty obvious,“ Turgeon said. “We threw the ball to them a lot more sometimes than we threw it to us. … I thought we were going to play pretty well. You’ve got to give them credit. They were so good out of the shoot. We just didn’t respond to it. We weren’t mature enough to respond to the way they came out and played and made shots and it kind of steamrolled.”
It was the third loss in the past four games for Maryland (14-4, 2-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) and the third straight game the Terps failed to score at least 55 points, the first time that has happened since 1981-82 — four years before the shot clock was introduced. Wells led the Terps with 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting, while sophomore center Alex Len finished with 10 points.
Though Turgeon praised North Carolina (12-5, 2-2) and its fans — “it was a hungry team and a hungry crowd, a team that needed a win and they played like it,” he said — the obviously exasperated coach said of the Terps, “We weren’t tough enough in a tough environment to screen better, be tough with the ball, make a shot.”
Or hold onto the ball. After freshman forward Shaquille Cleare missed a shot on Maryland’s first possession, the Terps committed turnovers on their next five possessions. They finished the first half with 15 turnovers — many of them unforced errors — and 21 for the game, including seven by former starting point guard Pe’Shon Howard, who also failed to score or register an assist in 14 minutes.
Howard, whose forced airball in the waning seconds of Wednesday’s 51-50 win over No. 14 North Carolina State at Comcast Center was redirected by Len for the winning basket, was not alone in his struggles. Sophomore Nick Faust (City), who took over at the point for Howard last Wednesday, had four points, three turnovers and only one assist in 23 minutes. Maryland had only five assists as a team.
Asked if Maryland’s collective youth caused its first-half problems, Wells said, “Age is just an excuse for how you approach the game. We didn’t come out ready.”
Said freshman forward Charles Mitchell, who finished with nine points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes off the bench, “We need to be a better first half.”
Though it has been painfully apparent that a lack of an effective point guard is impacting Maryland’s offensive struggles, Turgeon wouldn’t place the blame solely on those manning that position.
“It was everybody,” said Turgeon, a former point guard. “Alex didn’t adjust well to them doubling down on him. It’s a simple game, you get a guard [doubling], you just throw it back out. You can say point guard play wasn’t great but it wasn’t just the point guards. There was a lot of guys that struggled out there.”
Freshman Seth Allen, whose recent move from point guard to shooting guard was supposed to help his offensive game, missed his first five shots and finished 2-for-12 from the field, including 0-for-5 on 3-pointers. Cleare, whose move into the starting lineup at center was supposed to take pressure off Len, picked up three quick fouls and played just 10 minutes.
The Maryland bench — which has been outscoring opponents by ridiculous margins this season — was not a factor. Except for Mitchell, who along with Wells helped turn a rout into a marginally respectable final score, the rest of the reserves combined for two points on 1-for-9 shooting, two assists and eight turnovers.
“I think we just need to slow down and make smarter decisions,” Mitchell said. “It’s not about executing, it’s making the right decision in the play. Sometimes we break the play off and we need to run the whole play and run it correctly. We have to stick to Maryland basketball. That’s not Maryland basketball — trying to force passes, force shots, force a lot of things that we normally don’t force.”
Since the second half of a Jan. 9 loss to Florida State at home, when the Terps blew a double-digit first half lead, and the first few minutes of each half of the N.C. State game, that is what Maryland basketball has become. That the Terps held North Carolina to 8 of 34 shooting second half and Bullock to only one basket is what Turgeon has to build on.
“It’s easy to come back when you’re down 20,” said Turgeon, whose team goes home to play Boston College on Tuesday night before returning to face No. 3 Duke next Saturday. “Our defense was better in the second half. We guarded smarter, we guarded better, which is something have to hang your hat on a little bit.”