After a miserable first half that left the Comcast Center crowd palpably restless, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon might have gone off on his team. He’s a perfectionist, after all, and the Terps had seemed listless in the first half of a critical game against Notre Dame.
Turgeon said Maryland guarded poorly (“we couldn’t guard a simple down screen”), shot poorly (32.4 percent) and trailed 34-25.
But Turgeon – who has been known to stomp his feet in frustration – went the other way.
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He told his team to relax.
“I walked in there [at halftime] and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done to you guys, but we’re not playing the way we’re capable of playing,'" the coach said. "'So, let’s make a pact, we’re just going to have fun. We’re going to smile, we’re going to have fun. If you miss a shot, you can smile. If you do that -- you have fun and we play the way we’re capable -- we can win this game.'
"It was really that simple. Maybe we learned something as a staff, how we’ve got to approach this thing.”
Turgeon’s tactic might have seemed counterintuitive. After all, this was an important game for the Terps, who needed to begin feeling good about themselves after two blowout road-game losses. Maryland needs to prevail in its remaining winnable home games, and this was clearly one.
“There was a lot of pressure — we had to win this game -- and I think our guys felt it,” Turgeon conceded.
Somehow, Maryland managed to just play basketball in the second half and stop seeming to – in the words of Turgeon and a couple players – “walk on eggshells.”
“We had a blast,” said sophomore Shaquille Cleare, whose seven points included an important 3-point play. The forward wheeled in the lane and hit a jump shot while being fouled. His basket and free throw upped Maryland’s lead to 58-48. Jake Layman came over and chest-bumped Cleare, and Seth Allen hip-bumped him.
The Terps had precious few such celebratory moments in their last two games -– worrisome losses at Pittsburgh and Florida State. There is something to be said for relaxing, and you have to wonder to what extent this team was succumbing to the pressure before Wednesday night, and why. Playing loose doesn't meant you can't be tough.
Maryland’s second-half comeback began with defense. The Terps held the Irish to four points over the first 10 minutes of the second half and won, 74-66.
Defense isn’t as fragile as offense -- it’s largely about emotion and will. The rejuvenated Comcast Center crowd seemed to inspire the Terps to bear down. Notre Dame shot 38.5 percent in the second half.
It all begs the question: Can Maryland sustain that sort of energy – can it play free and easy -- when it returns to the road and is lacking the jet fuel that an amped-up home crowd can provide?
Road games remain, for this team, a largely unconquered frontier.