ST. THOMAS, THE VIRGIN ISLANDS — On the national radar, Maryland's 80-66 victory Sunday over Northern Iowa in the semifinals of the Paradise Jam barely registered a blip. But it was the biggest win of the season for the slow-starting Terps, one third-year coach Mark Turgeon hopes will turn around his befuddling team.
The Terps' most balanced offensive effort best defensive performance this season helped Maryland (3-2) reach Monday's 10 p.m. ET final here at the University of the Virgin Islands' Sports and Fitness Center. The Terps will face the winner of Sunday's second semifinal between La Salle and Providence.
"We're growing up, we had to play two completely different kind of teams these first two games, we had to guard a certain way against Marist and a different way tonight," Turgeon said. "We talked about them not beating us from the 3-point line. They got some open looks that they normally make, but I think we wore them down with our defensive pressure."
Junior forward Evan Smotrycz led Maryland with 20 points and nine rebounds, coming out of an early-season slump that extended into the first half Sunday. Sophomore swingman Jake Layman scored 19 points, while junior guard Dez Wells had 16 points, six assists and six rebounds. Nick Faust (City) added 17 points.
"I thought we really played tough and executed down the stretch, it was definitely a battle," said Smotrycz, who after missing four of five shots in the first half, including all three of his 3-point attempts, made seven of eight in the second half. "It was one of those games where you take your foot off the gas for one second you'll get punched in the mouth."
The Terps took that first punch, because they had not even turned on the ignition to start the game. But after watching Northern Iowa (2-3) score the game's first seven points and making some of their large contingent of fans squirm as Maryland got off to another slow start, a 3-point play by Faust helped the Terps on the first of many runs in a game that seemed to be filled with them, mostly by Turgeon's team.
After leading by three points, 33-30, at halftime, the Terps extended their lead to as many as 11, 57-46, with 10:34 to go. But the Panthers closed to 61-59 before a lob dunk by Layman on a pass from Faust led to a 3-point play and helped the Terps go on an 8-2 run to extend the lead to eight, 69-61, with 4:19 to play.
The Panthers cut their deficit back to five and got their own raucous purple-clad rooting section going. But a drive by Wells and a 3-point shot by Layman quieted the opponent's crowd. The Terps spent most of the final minute getting fouled, usually making the first free throw, missing the second and controlling the rebound tip to run out the clock.
It was a satisfying performance for a perfectionist such as Turgeon, coming exactly a week after the Terps played what many believed was their worst game since he came to College Park in a 90-83 home loss to lightly-regarded Oregon State at Comcast Center.
A week after the Terps allowed their Pac-12 opponent to shoot better than 60 percent from the field, Northern Iowa shot 22 of 57 (38.6 percent), including seven of 29 on threes. Junior center Seth Tuttle led the Panthers with 19 points, but needed 17 shots (making six) and eight free throws (making seven) to do so.
Asked if it was the most complete game the Terps played this year, Turgeon said, "Absolutely. We talked about it before the game ... We had no chance unless we played that way. We knew it. Our guys stepped up tonight, they were ready to play. The great thing is that our defense is at another level. It gives you a chance. I thought we played smart defensively. We knew where shooters were and where non-shooters were. For a one-day scout, it was really good. It was a really good night for us early in the year."
The Terps were as efficient on offense as they've been all year. Despite missing a number of dunks and making just 16 of 25 free throws, Maryland made plays when it needed to down the stretch. The Terps shot 29 of 60 overall from the field and recovered from a first half when they missed all eight 3-point attempts by making six of eight in the second half. They had 12 assists to only eight turnovers.
"It's nice to see guys hit shots aside from Jake Layman," Turgeon said.
Faust had his best game of the season, and one of his best in his career, playing under control until the last couple of minutes and forcing sophomore guard Nick Bohannon into a 2-for-10 shooting night, all from 3-point range. Wells returned to the point (with freshman Roddy Peters coming off the bench) and had just one turnover in 38 minutes. Faust had six rebounds and three steals.
"We're tired of losing, we're tired of hearing from coach about not defending well or doing the things we're supposed to do," Wells said. "We felt like we let one go against Oregon State and we don't want that to happen anymore."