RIVIERA MAYA, MEXICO — Maryland coach Mark Turgeon was waiting for a game like this, a night when he didn't have to worry about his men's basketball team concerning itself with its high ranking while playing up to the level he and others expected from the Terps this season.
It took five games and a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula for Maryland to finally look on the court like the team Turgeon had assembled on paper, and saw for stretches in its first four games as well as on the practice court at Xfinity Center back in College Park.
Building a 22-point lead during the first half of Wednesday night's Cancun Challenge championship game against Rhode Island at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, the second-ranked Terps led by 16 at halftime and by as many as 29 before cruising to an 86-63 victory.
Maryland (5-0) will return home for Thanksgiving unbeaten and suddenly meshing.
"We got stronger as the tournament went on," Turgeon said after his team's first one-sided win since the season opener against Mount St. Mary's. "We get better every game. And we looked better when we make shots. Last night we were 2-for-18 as a team from 3 [en route to a second straight 5-for-22 showing]. Tonight I think we were [5-for-9] at halftime. When you make shots, everything looks better."
The Terps finished the game shooting 60 percent from the field (30-for-50), and 10-for-17 overall from 3-point range. Maryland also was terrific defensively, holding Rhode Island (3-2) to 33.9 percent shooting (20-for-59) and 2-for-15 from 3, including 0-for-5 from former Towson guard Four McGlynn.
"I thought we were dialed in defensively. We did a nice job on them," Turgeon said.
Sophomore point guard Melo Trimble finished with 17 points on 7-for-7 shooting. Senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon also had 17, was 6-for-7 and the only shot he missed was a heave as the 30-second shot clock was about to expire. Junior forward Robert Carter Jr. finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. All three were named to the all-tournament team and Trimble was named the MVP.
It marked the third straight year in which Turgeon's team won a Thanksgiving week tournament, following the championship at the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Mo., and the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It also marked the third straight year the Terps had a Thanksgiving tournament MVP, the last two of which were earned by Trimble, following last year's performance in Kansas City.
"He was great. I didn't want to ever take him out. I thought he could've played 40 minutes," Turgeon said of Trimble, who played only 27, and also finished with six rebounds and four assists. "He was fresh as can be. I wanted to get Jaylen [Brantley] and Jared [Nickens] in there and give them minutes."
Said Trimble, who also made all three of his free throws, "I just got the confidence from my teammates before the game. They just told me to be me. Also Coach Turgeon [said] to be myself, don't try to be anything I can't be. That was my mindset coming out for this tournament and that's what I did tonight."
Perhaps overshadowing the performance of the Terps was the postgame behavior of Rams coach Danny Hurley, who according to a tournament official made derogatory expletive remarks to Maryland players in the handshake line, setting off Turgeon, who along with Hurley had been given a technical foul late in the game. The coaching staffs had to be separated on the court before the postgame trophy ceremony.
According to a statement released early Thursday morning by athletic director Thorr Bjorn, "I am 100-percent confident that neither Dan Hurley nor any member of our coaching staff made any derogatory remarks."
Sulaimon called the postgame flare-up "unique to say the least," adding "nothing bad to say about Rhode Island. They're a heck of a team. They played well. They have great players. I'm just happy that we came out with a win and everybody was safe at the end."
Neither coach would talk about the incident, but each was complimentary of the other's performance.
Asked whether he thought the Terps made a statement, Turgeon said, "I thought we beat a really good team, handily, that's well-coached. However people want to talk about us, we don't care. What we do care is that we're getting better. We had to accept that; just because you're ranked high doesn't mean you're going to win every game easily. We're going through a process we haven't been through before and I think we're getting better each and every game."
Said Hurley, "They're impressive, they have all the answers. Great point guard, dynamic shooting, the inside game, the depth. That's a national championship contender. They're the best team I've seen, them and Kentucky. That's one of the most complete teams I've seen. Seems like they've got two of everything."
Hurley had said after his team beat Texas Christian in the semifinals Tuesday night that Rhode Island's goal every game is to "take away the other team's best player." In this case, he meant Trimble. Or did he mean Carter? Or was it Sulaimon?
The trio, led by the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, got the Terps off to a start that was a lot hotter than the weather had been during their trip to Mexico. Maryland started off hitting 11 of its first 16 shots to build a 37-15 lead before the Rams made any kind of run.
After an 8-0 run by Rhode Island cut Maryland's lead to 14, the Terps got it back quickly to 19. After McGlynn hit a pair of free throws to make it 14 again with 9.1 seconds left in the half, Trimble calmly hit a long 2-pointer right before the halftime horn sounded. Sulaimon started the second half with a 3-point shot as the Terps eventually pushed their lead to 76-46 on a pair of free throws by Diamond Stone, who finished with 10 points and five rebounds.
Maryland will return home to play Cleveland State as part of this tournament before going back down to Tobacco Road for the first time since leaving the ACC to face preseason and short-lived No. 1 North Carolina, which dropped to No. 9 after a road loss last week at Northern Illinois. Though the Tuesday matchup in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge has lost some of its luster, it will certainly be of importance to Maryland in its quest to be ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history.
Turgeon doesn't seem to care how the Terps will be looked at differently after Wednesday's performance.
"We are getting better. That's important," Turgeon said. "It's a long season. We had a lot of phases [that were] better. It's one night, it's two nights, whatever it is. Hopefully we'll go back and learn from it and get ready for a hard-playing Cleveland State team."