Led by Nick Faust, second-seeded Maryland woke up and used its press and fast break effectively in a second-half surge to rout seventh-seeded Niagara, 86-70, and advance to the second round before an announced 4,053.
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“We were just kind of walking through the motions in the first half,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who was concerned his team would be tired after the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
But Turgeon said the second half confirmed what he has begun to hope and believe — that Maryland is learning to play through fatigue and adversity.
“We have lot of guys growing up finally,” Turgeon said. “They are growing up and realizing how hard you have to work. Has our program turned a corner? Yeah, I think it has the turned the corner. What level, I don't know. We are mentally and physically tougher, and a better road team.”
Maryland (23-12) will remain at home for now and third-seeded Denver Thursday night at Comcast Center.
Niagara led 29-23 before the Terps went on a 10-0 run.
“That was just what they needed to remind them how good they are,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said.
The Terps often do best when they press and get their break going. In the second half, they converted steals into baskets and thrived in the up-tempo game.
Maryland went on a 19-3 run after the break. A steal and a lay-up by Seth Allen (15 points) pushed Maryland's lead to 52-38. Moments later, Pe'Shon Howard threw a between-the-legs pass that resulted in a lay-up by Charles Mitchell and extended the margin to 16.
The Purple Eagles (19-14) were led by Antoine Mason — son of former NBA player Anthony Mason — who scored 24 points.
After Maryland missed the NCAA tournament, Turgeon had the task of emotionally and physically reviving his team, which played on three straight days during the ACC tournament.
Turgeon believes the Terps achieved a new level at the conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and he was eager to see if they could sustain their intensity in the NIT.
The Terps have said they want to win the NIT, and — after their sluggish start — they seemed invested in the task in the second half.
Turgeon said he told the players that Maryland “is in it to win it. We're going to win the sucker.”
The Terps want to win it for senior James Padgett and graduate student Logan Aronhalt.
“This is it for me,” Aronhalt said of the NIT. Aronhalt (15 points) was among five Terps in double figures.
Afterward, Mihalich pointed out Maryland's superior depth.
“I don't know if we're in a sword fight with a butter knife, but they've got McDonald's All-Americans and we've got kids who eat at McDonald's,” Mihalich said.
Maryland — which doesn't actually have any McDonald's All-Americans — is capable of winning the NIT, Mihalich said.
“You get into this, you get a win and it starts to feel good again,” he said. “If they can get another one, who knows? We'll be rooting for them.”