ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Another forgettable first half had slowly, and sloppily, given way to a double-digit lead for Maryland in Friday’s opening round of the Paradise Jam.
But then a 16-point lead had suddenly, and predictably, become 10, and some inside the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center thought winless Marist might make a run at its first win of the season.
Coming off a discouraging home loss Sunday to Oregon State, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon didn’t know what to think. His Terps had missed 18 of 27 shots before halftime and still led by six. Junior guard Dez Wells, in early foul trouble, had not scored.
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Even Turgeon didn’t count on what happened next: a lineup comprised of a former walk-on, two freshmen, a forward who could barely make a free throw and a guard who hasn’t hit his outside shot with any consistency this season helped the Terps pull away for a 68-43 victory.
“We had to play a lot of funny lineups because of foul trouble and all that in the first half,” Turgeon said after the Terps had advanced to a semifinal against Northern Iowa, which earlier defeated Loyola Marymount, 90-81. “I thought our bench was phenomenal.”
While sophomore swingman Jake Layman continued to emerge as the team’s go-to scorer, with more than half of his 16 points coming in two short bursts, and sophomore forward Charles Mitchell adding 12 points and eight rebounds off the bench, the Terps got their biggest lift from their smallest player.
With three starters on the bench early in the second half — Wells, Layman and sophomore center Shaquille Cleare, plus junior forward Evan Smotrycz, who had started the first three games — 5-foot-10, 150-pound junior point guard Varun Ram (River Hill) took charge by ratcheting up Maryland’s defense.
“From what I remember, we got a lot of stops, and Roddy [Peters] was pushing the ball and being aggressive,” said Ram, who added three points, three assists and two steals in 17 hectic minutes. “We kept pushing the pace, pushing the tempo, and we had a lot of athletic guys, so we were able to finish [with layups].”
Asked how much Ram had helped the Terps, Turgeon said: “A lot. You talk about deflections — he had a couple of steals out there, there’s some loose balls he came up with, some scrums he’s right in the middle of it. … I thought Varun was terrific.”
Ram, who came to Maryland last season as a walk-on after playing at the Division III level, combined with Peters, the freshman point guard; freshman center Damonte Dodd; Mitchell; and slumping junior guard Nick Faust (five points on 2-for-8 shooting) to push the Terps back to a 16-point lead that eventually grew to as many as 30.
“I felt like I had to come in and do my role. That’s what I’m here for,” Ram said. “When guys are in foul trouble, [I] come in and execute, help us get into our offense, try not to make many mistakes, make smart plays, make simple plays.”
Added Turgeon: “I thought Varun gave us great minutes, I thought Damonte’s length helped us around the rim when he was in there. I thought Charles was really good again except for his free throws [2-for-9 shooting]. And it was good to see Shaq play a good game. He was really a force out there.”
Cleare, who played sparingly as a freshman while sitting behind center Alex Len and has struggled this season after having nagging back and hamstring injuries over the spring and summer, emerged from a disappointing start to his sophomore year with one of his best games as a Terp.
“I’ve been working hard in practice, I just had to get over the hump,” said Cleare, who hit all four of his shots to finish with eight points and five rebounds in 19 minutes. “Coach was saying, ‘You’re getting a little frustrated. Things haven’t gone the way you’re capable of. Just keep working hard, and things would start dropping for me. That’s what happened tonight.”
The play of Layman and the bench helped the Terps overcome a poor shooting night for Wells (nine points on 2-for-8 shooting) as well as Smotrycz’s worst offensive game in a Maryland uniform. Replaced in the starting lineup by Peters after playing poorly against Oregon State, Smotrycz, a Michigan transfer, scored just four points.
The subpar execution offensively didn’t surprise Turgeon. After a 90-83 loss to Oregon State in which two Beavers players combined for 60 points and the team shot over 60 percent from the field, the Terps held Marist to 13-for-50 shooting.
“I was disappointed with our offense, but we haven’t really worked on our man-to-man offense a lot,” Turgeon said. “Oregon State zoned us for 40 minutes, and then we were so bad defensively that we had to work on defense. I had a feeling that we were going to struggle offensively tonight, and we did. If we continue to guard like that, we can overcome a bad offensive night.”
That in-your-face defense often starts with Ram, who received a huge ovation after fouling out with about two minutes left but heard a chant of “M-V-P” after a rare 3-pointer. Asked whether he had heard the chorus, Ram smiled. Then laughed.
“No, that’s funny,” he said. “It’s a little ridiculous.”
Just like the lineup that helped the Terps put this one away.