There was skepticism about whether the Maryland men's basketball team belonged among the sport's bluebloods after the then second-ranked Terps lost their first game of the season last week at North Carolina.
Maryland saw its ranking drop from second in both polls to sixth among the media voters and all the way down to ninth among the coaches. The Terps went into Tuesday night's game against Connecticut in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden as only a slight favorite.
Looking to make some sort of statement, Maryland seemed as if it was going to make a rather big one by running up a 20-point lead over the Huskies to silence their fans who consider this venerable arena as the team's second home.
After seeing that lead cut all the way down to three with 2:49 to play, the Terps made what could be an important stand when their Big Ten schedule begins later this month.
Behind a strong first half from freshman Diamond Stone, a strong second half from sophomore Melo Trimble and a key late technical foul on Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, Maryland held off the Huskies, 76-66.
"I thought it was just a great crowd, great energy, two good teams, we were as good as we've been defensively and rebounding as we have all year," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "We've worked really hard on it, it's really all we've done since the Carolina game is work defensively."
Asked if building the big lead or holding off the Huskies made him happier, Turgeon said, "I like both."
"I like that we started the game well in a big-time environment," he continued. "Our guys were playing with poise, we were great defensively. I thought we handled it great, better than we handled the two other big games [North Carolina and Georgetown] we played, which was great. I like that they made a run at us."
Said junior forward Robert Carter, who overcame early foul trouble to finish with a team-high 11 rebounds: "I thought we had confidence against Carolina, we just didn't execute down the stretch. We have guys that have played in a lot of [different] environments before, we just kept our composure and believed in each other."
The Terps certainly believed in Trimble.
Trimble, who scored just three points in Friday's 41-point victory over Saint Francis, finished with 25 against Connecticut. Trimble, who had not been getting to the foul line this season as much as when he was a freshman, hit 14 of 15.
The one he missed was the second of two technical free throws against Ollie with 2:44 left. The Connecticut coach appeared to be upset about the foul call on Jalen Adams, and Ollie went over the scorer's table and flung some papers in the air.
"My hand took the stats, that's the only thing I did," Ollie said, adding that he didn't think Adams fouled Trimble. "I don't think it changed [the momentum]."'
Said Turgeon: "The technical definitely helped, I think we made three out of four at the line and went from three to six. It gave a point, but it helped us stem the tide a little bit."
Ollie believed the difference in the game was falling behind by 20 in the first half, largely behind the play of Stone, who finished the half with 12 of his 16 points -- tying his career-high -- as well as six of his career-high nine rebounds.
Coming off the bench for the second straight game behind junior Damonte Dodd, Stone teamed with Trimble -- along with the best defense he and the Terps have played this season -- to give Maryland a 34-14 lead with a little under five minutes left in the half.
"I was really proud of his defense, it was his best defensive effort," said Turgeon, who beat out both Connecticut and Wisconsin for the five-star prospect.
"Diamond is one of those guys, like Melo, the bigger the game, the bigger they play. Diamond did that tonight, he was fired up. Connecticut recruited him really hard, so he was fired up to play the game. He was good. He's coming. I keep saying he gets better in practice every day, gets more coachable. He's listening and getting better."
Turgeon was able to rotate all his big men through what could have been difficult foul trouble, when both Dodd and Carter had to sit because of two fouls for most of the first half. Stone, as well as sophomore Michal Cekovsky and freshman Ivan Bender, were able to hold their own at the defensive end.
"We do a lot of things together, our bigs," Turgeon said. "We rely on each other. I told them at halftime of the last game, I had some long faces, it's hard to get four good big guys into the game. I said, 'We've got to be dominant as bigs, we've got to keep coming at them.' It doesn't surprise me what our bigs are doing."
Looking at Carter, whose eight points included a couple of big second-half baskets, he said, "We've come a long way, right Robert?"
In the end, though, Turgeon went back to relying on Trimble to take over the game, which he did often as a freshman and has done, when needed this season. Just as he did at the end of the Georgetown win, and nearly did in the second half at North Carolina, the unflappable sophomore just made sure the Terps wouldn't lose.
Trimble said it reminded him of last year's NCAA tournament games in Columbus, Ohio, but in reality it seemed more like the final of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City when the Terps, then unranked and largely unproven, upset No. 13 Iowa State and silenced the Iowa State fans that had taken over the arena.
There were many more Maryland fans at Madison Square Garden, though when Connecticut wing Daniel Hamilton, who led the Huskies with 23 points, buried a long 3-pointer from the left wing, it appeared as if the Terps were teetering. Thanks to Trimble, and maybe to Oliie, they managed to leave with their eighth win in nine games.
Asked the difference between the way Maryland came out against Connecticut compared to how the Terps played early against North Carolina, Trimble said, "I think it's just confidence. We didn't worry about the crowd. Of course we enjoyed the moment, playing in the Garden."
Winning -- and surviving Connecticut's big second-half run -- certainly helped.