Maryland men have to 'play a whole lot better' if they want to make run in NCAA tournament

The Maryland men's basketball team knows what's going wrong. Now it has to fix it before the NCAA tournament.

Sitting quietly in their dressing room at Verizon Center late Friday night, members of the Maryland men's basketball team tried to come up with some answers for their second-half collapse against Northwestern in a 72-64 defeat in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

As was the case on the court against the sixth-seeded Wildcats, the third-seeded, 25th-ranked Terps didn't have many. Was it an offense that scored just once in a stretch of nearly nine minutes after Maryland led by 10 points? Was it a defense that got lost in transition during the 20-2 run by Northwestern?

"We just couldn't get the ball in the basket, then we couldn't get stops and that allowed them to get a run," freshman guard Anthony Cowan said.

"We had some breakdowns all night, but they made some tough shots all night, especially their guards," senior center Damonte Dodd said. "It was their night."

"I feel like we let our offense affect our defense at some point," freshman forward Justin Jackson said.

Instead of playing in its third straight Big Ten semifinal Saturday, Maryland (24-8) returned to College Park to await Sunday's announcement of this year's NCAA tournament field.

Though the Terps know they have a bid locked up, they won't know how Friday's defeat and six losses in the past 10 games after a school-record 20-2 start will affect their seeding.

One other thing Maryland coach Mark Turgeon tried to impart to his players before they left Verizon Center was that the young Terps would have to play a lot better to play longer in the NCAA tournament.

"We've got to handle the stage better," a disappointed Turgeon said after the game. "Hopefully we have time to practice. Hopefully we'll get better between now and our next game."

Said freshman guard Kevin Huerter: "We'll definitely get after it in practice, there's a lot of things we've got to work on. Practices are not going to be light. … Try to treat our practices like the games when we go live."

A year ago, Maryland lost four of its last six regular-season games and beat Nebraska in the quarterfinals before losing a close game to Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.

A team that had been picked by many to go to the Final Four before and even midway through the season, was seeded fifth in the NCAA tournament. The Terps reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003 before losing to top-seeded Kansas in Louisville, Ky.

This year's team, which was picked to finish in the middle of the Big Ten pack and exceeded expectations by tying for second, will likely be a seventh seed in the NCAA tournament.

Asked whether his younger teammates understand what's at stake, Dodd said, "I think the freshmen know. You've got to remain positive. Like Coach said, 'This is more than just basketball. This is life, this is life lessons that will teach you that there's going to be stumble blocks, things are going to happen. You've got to come ready to work."

Said Jackson: "What's done is done. We've just got to get back in the gym and just get back to basics and what got us where we're at."

Said Cowan: "We have no choice but to forget about this loss now."

The chip the Terps carried into the season will accompany them wherever they might end up in the round of 64.

"I think in this locker room all year we felt we were one of the best teams in the Big Ten and I think all year we've been trying to prove it," Huerter said, who finished with 19 points, four assists, four rebounds and three steals against Northwestern.

Junior guard Melo Trimble, whose team-high 20 points and six rebounds against Northwestern were overshadowed by his team-high six turnovers, said the Terps will use Friday's loss as motivation for their next opponent, whoever that might be.

"It's going to hurt the whole week, until we play again," Trimble said. "We've got to build our confidence back up and just be ready to play. Coach Turgeon said we have another tournament left. This is a local tournament; now we have a bigger tournament."

Though getting away from Big Ten opponents more familiar with the team's strengths and weaknesses might help, the Terps will have to do a better job protecting a lead and finishing games better than they lately.

"This time of year, your defense has to be consistent and your offense has to be consistent," Turgeon said. "We had a lot of turnovers from our point guard position [11 combined by Trimble and Cowan, who had five]. Then when we weren't going well offensively, we stopped guarding."

Turgeon talked a lot about how the Terps have to become tougher.

His parting message to his team in the quiet dressing room at Verizon Center was simple.

"Just said we've got to play a whole lot better or our season is going to end pretty quick," Huerter said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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