The Maryland men’s basketball team’s final nonconference game of the season was supposed to be nothing more than a simple tuneup: Clean off the rust from an eight-day Christmas break and drive smoothly into the restart of the Big Ten season off an easy victory.
Though the margin of victory in a 66-45 win over UMBC on Friday night might appear to follow that formula, a horrific first-half performance against the Retrievers could have been a red flag as big as one the one Maryland students use during their flash-mob dances at Xfinity Center.
Asked whether he was more concerned about his team’s lowest scoring first-half in four years — the Terps trailed 24-18 after hitting just six of 26 shots and committing 10 turnovers — than he was pleased with a strong second half, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon was clear.
“Much more pleased with what happened in the second half,” Turgeon said. “I said it on radio [after the game], that was the most fun I’ve had all year coaching this team the second half. Guys were responding. We were playing crazy lineups.
“We just had a lot going on with our team, and guys responded. They listened and we got better. So I really enjoyed it. Am I concerned about our team? Not really. … I think we know that we have a fine, small margin for error with this team. … We’ll get better.”
The Terps will have only three days to prepare for Tuesday’s game against Penn State, a team which took advantage of Maryland’s lack of readiness a year ago in State College. Despite a recent last-second home loss to Rider, the Nittany Lions appear to be much improved.
“Penn State will pose its challenges, obviously,” sophomore guard Kevin Huerter said Friday. “I think we also learned a lot from this game [against UMBC]. We learned a little bit more about how to play without [sophomore forward] Justin [Jackson], so I think we’ll get better a little bit better as every game goes on.”
“I think we’re all ready for conference play to start,” said sophomore point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., who leads the Terps in scoring (15.5 points per game) and assists (4.5). “I think we learned a lot about ourselves and we got a lot better. So now it’s time to go out and do what we’re supposed to do in conference.”
As for Maryland, it’s hard to figure what kind of team Turgeon has going back into league play.
A combination of a soft nonconference schedule — the Terps were ranked 246th in strength of schedule before playing UMBC — as well as a slew of injuries that culminated with Jackson’s season-ending torn labrum has prevented Turgeon’s team from making steady progress.
“We really try to guard and we’re a good rebounding team,” Turgeon said Friday. "That’s one of the things about losing Justin. He was our leading rebounder and we’re going to miss him. We’re just a work in progress.
“I like my team and I like being around them. They listen, they practice hard and they respond well. We didn’t play the toughest nonconference schedule, but we were two possessions away from being undefeated [in the non-conference].”
Huerter, who helped the Terps overcome a six-point halftime deficit and avoid what could have been the most embarrassing defeat in Turgeon’s seven seasons at Maryland by scoring 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, said some positives can be taken from Friday’s performance.
“I think it’s better that we ended the game really well than started the game really well and ending it bad,” Huerter said. “Going into tomorrow, we have an off-day [Saturday], but guys will get in the gym and hopefully Sunday going into practice we can build off the second half.”
Cowan, who also had a strong second half to finish with 14 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, said he wasn’t that concerned with the way the Terps played in the first half.
“I don’t think it was concerning,” said Cowan, who scored 11 points and made three of his four 3-point shots in the second half. “Every game is going to be different. Now we’ve got to put this game behind us and get ready for Tuesday.”
The Terps will go into the game against Penn State shorthanded, especially in the frontcourt. After it was announced Thursday that Jackson, the team’s leading rebounder, would be undergoing surgery, one of his potential replacements was injured Friday.
Redshirt junior forward Ivan Bender had to be helped off the court early in the second half holding his right knee. Bender, who came to Maryland after twice undergoing ACL surgery on his left knee in high school, had an MRI on Saturday. The results have yet to be announced.
“If something is wrong with Ivan, we’ll figure something out,” Turgeon said. “Josh Tomaic [could play]. We might play Ceko [senior center Michal Cekovsky] and [freshman center] Bruno [Fernando] together some or go small, and we’ll figure it out. The key is that we stay out of foul trouble.”
Said Cowan: “When I heard that Justin was going to be down, I just told Black [Darryl Morsell] and Jared [Nickens] and Dion [Wiley] that we just need to step up and rebound. I think the offense is going to come, we just got to make sure we do the little things that Justin did, like rebound.”
Though Jackson struggled for much of the season with his shooting, the Terps will also need Huerter to play a bigger role offensively. It showed in the second half Friday, when he took seven shots, making five, including four of six 3-pointers.
“He was more aggressive, which was great, but I told the team at halftime, ‘We have to get Kevin more shots.’ and we were able to get him a couple of looks out of sets we were running,” Turgeon said. “He’s got to shoot more for us to be successful. He knows it. That’s my job, so hopefully I’ll be able to figure it out.”
Huerter, who has averaged nearly 16 points over the team’s past eight games, acknowledged that he needs to be more aggressive offensively earlier in games, particularly in light of Jackson’s absence.
“We can’t start off these games the way we did and expect to win in the Big Ten,” Huerter said. “I definitely do have to be aggressive now that he’s out.”
Seeking their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance, the Terps will have to build their resume on what they do in the Big Ten. In its first three years in the league, Maryland has averaged more than 12 wins and has finished no worse than tied for third.
Despite having played two Big Ten games in early December — losing at home to Purdue before winning in overtime at Illinois — Turgeon looks at Tuesday’s game as if the Terps were starting fresh in league play.
“I think it feels like starting over again,” Turgeon said. “Wish you were 2-0 instead of 1-1. I think I’ll be like the first game in the league, when we play Penn State. I think we’ll both be fired up, ready to go. I think it will be a terrific game.”
Turgeon was then asked whether the Terps can get to where they need to be mentally in three days after what happened Friday.
“Me or the team?” Turgeon asked. “Yeah, absolutely. I thought we showed that in the second half. I thought we were terrific in the second half.”