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Terps getting crunch-time reps the natural way

The Maryland basketball team has been in several close games this year, and they've pulled out all of them.

Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon occasionally tests his team at practice by telling his starters to simulate a play for a key, late-game possession.

Because of a busy schedule that features the Terps playing five games over a 10-day stretch, including Tuesday's ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup with visiting Pittsburgh (5-1), Maryland (7-0) hasn't held many practices recently.

It hasn't mattered, because the Terps are getting to work on those frantic situations in real time.

That is what Turgeon prefers, even with a team that is currently starting — and typically finishing — with three freshmen.

"Maybe it's the Larry Brown in me; I use the games to get better," Turgeon said Monday, referring to his former coach at Kansas. "We used two plays the other night that they hadn't seen before. The guys did it. I like to challenge them that way."

Five of the Terps' six wins against Division I competition have come by a total of 19 points, including two wins in which the Terps came from behind in the waning seconds.

In the first instance, against Georgetown on Nov. 15 at the Verizon Center in Washington, the Terps were helped by a foul deep in their own backcourt. Junior guard Melo Trimble converted it into a pair of free throws with 7.6 seconds left to secure a 76-75 victory.

Then, against Kansas State on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Trimble used a screen at the top of the key to free himself from a defender and drive down the left side of the lane for a go-ahead layup with 6.6 seconds to go in a 69-68 win.

"We have a great player in Melo and we can let him do his thing late in the game, and the guys get it and they understand it," Turgeon said. "He also understands that the players around him give him great spacing that allows him to do what he's able to do."

In both games, Maryland had to sweat out the final seconds on defense.

Against Georgetown, freshman wing Kevin Huerter blocked a potential game-winning drive by Hoyas freshman Jagan Mosely. In the second, Kansas State guard Barry Brown missed an 18-foot jumper from the left wing as time expired to give the Terps the Barclays Center Classic title.

Along with an 88-82 overtime win over Richmond the previous night, a well as narrow home victories over American (62-56) and Towson (71-66), Mark Turgeon's young team has gone from vastly inexperienced to battle-tested in three weeks.

"We really grew up during those games," Turgeon said. "Whenever you have two 'huggers' like that — close wins — it really brings the team together a little bit more and helps you believe in yourself that you can pull off those late-game victories."

Said freshman guard Anthony Cowan, who has started every game alongside Trimble this season, "Basically all of the games have been so close so far. It makes you grow up, especially the freshmen. Makes sure you make the right decision."

What's remarkable about this start is that Maryland is doing with it with three freshmen who have started together the past five games and have been in at the end of all the close games. .

It is believed to be the first time three freshmen have started more than one game together in modern Maryland history.

"They've handled everything," Turgeon said of Cowan, Huerter and power forward Justin Jackson. "It was funny. I was talking to [Kansas State] coach Bruce Weber after the game and he said, 'Boy, your three young guys play with great poise.

"Anthony's been that way his whole life, Kevin Huerter's got great knowledge of the game and Justin Jackson's just a baller…They've all handled it great and it helps that they have a great player around them in Melo Trimble that's won a lot of games since he's been here."

Huerter, whose ability to contribute at both ends of the court has been one of the keys to Maryland's success so far, said that the tense late-game situations have been part of the college experience for him and the other freshmen, like studying for their first final exams.

"Basically every game we've had so far has been close, so we don't know anything different at this point," Huerter said. "I think that's helping us out and hopefully what helps us out as the season comes along is winning those close games and continuing to do so."

It is becoming reminiscent of two years ago, when the Terps won a couple of close non-conferences games early in the season, started their first Big Ten season with a double-overtime road win at Michigan State and wound up winning their first 10 games that were decided by six points or fewer.

That team, which was picked to place 10th in the conference and finished second behind Wisconsin, was led by senior guard Dez Wells, who was in his third year at Maryland. This team, which has been thought of as a middle-of-the-pack team, is clearly led by Trimble.

"He's a lot of it, but just having good basketball players and demanding it and then have a belief," Turgeon said. "We have a belief that we're going to win close games. We've done it a lot in the last few years, and so our guys really believe that."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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