COLLEGE PARK — On a sleepy Sunday afternoon at Xfinity Center, Chol Marial proved to be a 7-foot-2 alarm clock.
First he woke up the crowd that had come for the noon tipoff against Bryant, the Maryland men’s basketball team’s first home game in more than three weeks. It was also the first game for the No. 13 Terps since they lost at Seton Hall on Dec. 19 and were left contemplating a two-game losing streak going into Christmas break.
If the six days coach Mark Turgeon gave his players off after the loss to the unranked Pirates in New Jersey or the two-a-day practices he held since the team returned from its break didn’t seem to change the energy level much coming out against the pesky Bulldogs (8-5), Marial did. While his numbers weren’t eye-popping in Maryland’s 84-70 victory, his presence was.
“He was good, his attitude was good and what he did was he energized the building, and he energized our team,” said Turgeon, who also credited freshman forward Donta Scott for doing the same thing in the second half when the Terps built their six-point halftime lead to as many as 20, 72-52, with 2:48 remaining.
Said sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins: “The energy was just completely different when he subbed in [with 13:07 remaining in the first half]. He got a standing ovation. He walked in, he had a big smile on his face. Everybody on the court was really excited for him. He’s been ready for this moment. He was eager for it.”
Given that it was Marial’s first college game, coming nearly four months after he underwent surgery to heal stress fractures in both legs and give his skinny lower torso more stability with the insertion of titanium rods, the 20-year-old from South Sudan showed his promise in a 14-minute stint that produced three follow dunks, five rebounds, one block, one assist and plenty of smiles.
“Sheesh, it feels amazing, it feels really great,” said Marial, still smiling broadly long after the game had ended. "I was so excited, to see the guys, to see everyone [in the building] just happy for me to play again, that was amazing. I was ready for it. I’ve been working for two months now [since being cleared to practice]. I didn’t have anything to worry about.”
Once ranked among the top three high school players in the country when he was a sophomore before missing most of the past three years because of recurring shin splints, Marial seemed engaged from the moment he entered the game.
After Bryant guard Ikenna Ndugba lofted a running bank over Marial’s 8-foot wingspan to cut an early 10-6 deficit, Marial gobbled up a missed drive by sophomore guard Eric Ayala and slammed it back in the basket. He then cleared the boards at the other end, found Scott for a layup that was called for goaltending and redirected a missed jumper by Wiggins with another dunk.
The second half was more of a same for Marial — short bursts of athleticism and small glimpses into the kind of player he could eventually become as Big Ten play resumes Jan. 4 at home against Indiana, followed by No. 2 Ohio State three days later. All three of his baskets came on putback dunks. Though he blocked only one shot, he altered and challenged several others.
It even surprised Turgeon how quickly Marial adapted to the pace of the game.
“He’s been really good at practice at different times. I thought he’d be a little more nervous, a little bit more out of it,” Turgeon said. “Early in the year, he wasn’t at practice for a lot of our practices when he was hurt. For him to do what he did was pretty impressive.”
Cowan, who led Maryland (11-2) with 19 points, four assists and no turnovers in 33 minutes, said he was also surprised that Marial didn’t display any nerves.
“Honestly, yeah,” the point guard said, then noted with a smile, “When you’re 7-2 and you can just drive it in — not much nerves going to doing it that way.”
Said Marial: “Before the game, I was not nervous, but I think I was too hyped [not] to feel that crowd on my back and to play on the big stage.”
Marial’s teammates seemed as happy for him as he was for himself.
“He’s such a positive dude,” said Cowan, who rooms with Marial. “Throughout his whole surgery, we got to be around each other a lot. I’m happy for him, he was able to come out and really produce on the defensive end and the offensive end, able to finish around the basket and protect the rim. He did what we needed him to do.”
Said Wiggins, who finished with 15 points and nine rebounds: “I told him before the game, ‘This is your day, enjoy it.’ He hasn’t played a [competitive] game in a long time. I told him, ‘Just be patient, it’s going to come.’ I know he enjoyed his time. He had a ball. ... Seeing your teammate succeed, knowing what he had to go through and still stay positive. and get the point where he’s ready to play, I’m really excited for him.”
Marial’s debut also came in the aftermath of Friday night’s sudden announcement that two other freshmen big men, twin brothers Makhi and Mahkel, put their names in the NCAA transfer portal. Maria Mitchell, the players’ mother, took to social media during Sunday’s game, alternating her emotions by showing her support for the the Terps — even for Marial in one tweet — while criticizing Turgeon.
Asked if he was aware of her tweets, Turgeon said after the game, “No comment.” Showing his frustration with the situation, and the question, Turgeon shook his head, muttering under his breath, “Jesus.”
At least for one game, the physicality and toughness that Turgeon often said the twins — and Scott — brought to this year’s team was not missed.
Coming against a team whose two big men got into foul trouble, Maryland outrebounded Bryant 48-16, including 19-4 on the offensive boards. Sophomore forward Jalen Smith pulled down 10, to go along with 11 points, for his eighth double double of the season. Scott had seven, all of them on the offensive boards and three coming on a single possession, as well scoring as nine points.
"We’ve been a good rebounding team the last five games really,” Turgeon said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a team [outrebound an opponent] 48-16 on the boards. That’s pretty dominant.”
Asked if Sunday’s game helped erase the negativity that seemed to pervade the program the past few weeks — beginning with the losses to then-unranked Penn State Dec. 10 and Seton Hall that was followed by departure of the Mitchells — Cowan said, "That was a good feeling, to get back on track.”
But the best feeling came from watching Marial maneuver through his first college game, doing more than many expected though not nearly what he is likely to show before long.
“It’s like you missing homework,” he said. “You got to keep doing it until you get the feeling, and then when you have the feeling, you’re going to get out there and shoot it or get a pass or run quick. I’m just taking it a step here and a step there.”
And how would Marial grade his homework — or rather, performance?
“It would probably be up there,” he said with a laugh.
Indiana@No. 13 Maryland
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