CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Maryland knew that beating Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena Monday night might be its most challenging task since going up to Pittsburgh last month.
The Cavaliers hadn’t lost a game in nearly a month and had won its previous five Atlantic Coast Conference games by an average of 16 points. Virginia still has its streaks alive, but it wasn’t as easy as many figured it might be.
After overcoming a one-point deficit at halftime and building an 11-point lead in the second half, No. 20 Virginia held on to beat Maryland, 61-53, before an announced crowd of 11,568.
The Terps cut their double-digit lead down to four, 54-50, and had a chance to get even closer. But junior forward Evan Smotrycz’s wide-open 3-point rimmed out.
Virginia then went on a 7-0 run before sophomore guard Seth Allen hit a moot 3-pointer for Maryland (14-11, 6-6). The Terps thought it might have been a different ending had Smotrycz’s shot gone down.
“That was a big swing for them,” said junior guard Nick Faust (City), whose tip and breakaway slam had cut the deficit to four. “If Evan had made the shot, I think the game would have been different. But the ball didn’t fall our way and they got things going at the end.”
Junior guard Dez Wells wouldn’t go that far.
“Possibly,” he said. “But you can’t speak in hypotheticals at this point. That was a good game, hard-fought. We’re going to get one.”
In winning its eighth straight game, Virginia (20-5, 11-1) committed just one turnover in the second half and seemed to have the game put away when senior guard Joe Harris hit back-to-back 3-pointers in what would be a 9-0 run after the game was tied at 35.
The Cavaliers also won with its ACC-leading defense. After a layup by Harris had given Virginia a 37-35 lead, junior forward Justin Anderson blocked Maryland freshman point guard Roddy Peters at the rim and Harris made one of those 3-pointers at the other end.
“There are swing plays in every game, and that one was significant,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said afterward.
Harris led the Cavaliers with 19 points, 11 of them coming in the second half. Mitchell added 13 points and six rebounds. Sophomore guard Seth Allen led the Terps with 15 points, while junior guard Dez Wells scored 12.
Unlike the past five games, when Maryland has shot over 50 percent overall and had made more than half its shots in four of the games, the Terps were 21 of 52 against Virginia, including just six of 21 on 3-pointers.
After a hot start, Smotrycz cooled off considerably, finishing 3 of 13, including 2 of 9 on 3 pointers. Wells was 4 of 11. Sophomore forward Jake Layman hit his first shot, but was poked in the eye late in the first half and was not a factor, finishing with just five points.
“I thought It was a great college basketball game,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I was really proud of our group, we played really hard, we executed, we defended pretty well. We did a lot of things well. There’s a reason they’re 11-1 in the league.”
Asked if it might have been a different ending had Smotrycz been able to cut the deficit to a point with a little over a minute left, Turgeon said, “Absolutely, the run we were making, the pressure would be on ‘em, we wouldn’t have to foul. It’d been big. We just didn’t finish some plays we normally finish.”
Asked if he worries about Smotrycz’s confidence, Turgeon said, “He’s got to be tough enough to make the next one.”
Turgeon said that the Terps reverted to settling for “a few too many jump shots” but added, ”It’s hard to drive on them here at home.” Maryland will have a chance to drive on the Cavaliers at Comcast Center in the regular season finale Mar. 9.
Though Turgeon knows that another opportunity for his team to get its first win over a ranked team this season passed, the competitiveness the Terps demonstrated in a hostile environment was much improved from recent losses at both North Carolina State and North Carolina.
“Losing is no fun,” said Turgeon, who has yet to get a win over Virginia in the five games Maryland has played the Cavaliers the past three years. “With that said, we have gotten so much better in the last month. We are figuring it out.”
Said Wells, “We are getting better. It’s just came down to two or three possessions where we had lapses on defense. When you play a team like Virginia where they slow it up…every possession matters. In this kind of game, this kind of environment, everything has to be on point.”
The Terps will have a similar task in their next game Maryland will have a few days to figure out how to beat No. 8 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Terps will make what is expected to be their final appearance in the foreseeable future on Saturday.
“We’re definitely looking forward to it,” Faust said. “The rivalry and the hype is going to be there.”
NOTES: The Terps also played most of the second half without sophomore center Shaquille Cleare, who injured a shoulder going up to block a dunk by Mitchell.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun