COLLEGE PARK — The Maryland basketball went from clueless to carefree Wednesday night, going from another embarrassing effort in the first half to a much-needed 74-66 victory over undermanned and undersized Notre Dame at Comcast Center.
A 16-2 run to start the second half quickly turned a nine-point halftime deficit into what became the first comfortable lead for the Terps after a pair of blowout defeats to Pittsburgh and Florida State had put Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and the Terps on edge.
After being held scoreless in the first half, junior guard Dez Wells led the comeback by scoring all 17 points in the second half. Sophomore guard Seth Allen, making his first start of the season after coming off the bench following his return from a broken foot, added 14 while junior guard Nick Faust (City) added 13 and a great defensive effort off the bench.
A combination of Wells and Allen did a good job on Notre Dame's Eric Atkins (Mount St. Joseph), holding the senior guard to 11 points after he had averaged 21 in the four games since leading scorer Jerian Grant was suspended for the season for an academic issue.
The victory helped keep Maryland (11-7, 3-2 in the ACC) in the middle of the pack in an inconsistent league. It also gave Notre Dame (10-7, 1-3) its third straight defeat after opening with an upset of Duke despite losing Grant.
It gave Turgeon, who has been taking heat from fans for his team's performance, a moment to smile for the first time in more than a week. Turgeon said that he told his team to "have fun" in the second half and it seemed to work.
"The kind of year it's been, it just hasn't gone the way we wanted, there was a lot of pressure, we had to win this game," Turgeon said. "I think the guys felt it. I thought the crowd in the second half was tremendous, I thought our guys were tremendous. We really guarded them in the second half."
Asked if he felt relief, Turgeon said, "It's not a relief, it gives me hope that the guys are listening to messages, maybe we felt pressure being at home tonight. We went right through their man and they went zone and we just couldn't make one."
Booed late in the first half by some in the crowd of 13,878, the Terps turned up their defense in the second half. Maryland held the Fighting Irish scoreless on its first nine possessions of the second half and to 10 of 26 shooting after Notre Dame made 14 of 24 shots in the first half.
Maryland also stopped taking ill-advised 3-point shots. After making their first two in the game, the Terps missed 13 straight and just three of 16 in the first half as Notre Dame (10-7, 1-3) turned early deficits of 7-2 and 10-4 into a 26-14 lead. The Irish led 34-25 at halftime.
"I love how we played in the first half," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who picked up a second half technical foul. "The second half when they took control…they really put it on us physically."
In particular Wells, who after missing a pair of early free throws didn't make any of the six shots he tried in the first half. Though he finished just shooting 3 of 10 from the field, Wells made all 11 of his free throws in the second half.
As a team, the Terps made 17 of 20 in the half, most of them coming after getting in the bonus with over 10 minutes. Wells said that former Terps great Juan Dixon, who joined Turgeon's staff as a special assistant in November, has been on him to become a more forceful player.
"Juan gets on me all the time because he says I don't use my body well enough," Wells said.
Wells said the difference between the halves for him was "that I made free throws and didn't take any 3-pointers. I went to the basket in the first half but I let their height get to me. When I went to the basket in the second half, I just wanted to post up and get the ball where I wanted it."
Not that Maryland made it easy for its third-year coach and the fans. Seemingly in control with a 10-point lead, the Terps watched Notre Dame cut its deficit to five with 1:42 left. But junior guard Nick Faust (City) made a 3 to push the lead to eight. Faust finished with 13 off the bench.
Maryland also got a boost in the second half from sophomore center Shaquille Cleare.
Struggling for much of the season, Cleare not only took advantage of his size and strength, but also displayed some agility with a spinning fadeaway that turned into a 3-point play. He later got the crowd fired up with a demonstrative block.
The message from Turgeon came as a bit of a surprise to his players.
"We thought he'd be in there screaming and throwing waters bottles around, but he came in calm, as calm as the sea," Cleare said. "He said, 'Guys, stop walking on egg shells, just have fun, just relax and play and we really took it in and we just took it over in the second half."