COLLEGE PARK — The Maryland men’s basketball team played Catholic on Tuesday night because the Terps start final exams Wednesday, and who better to face before real tests than a Division III minnow? Maryland needed another opponent, one it didn’t have to worry about.
But at the first media timeout, the Terps trailed by five points. At the second media timeout, they were still down. In a season marred by slow starts against quality opponents, Maryland’s first half was a total nonstarter, as if the Terps were busy checking their timepieces long after hearing the starting gun.
It ultimately didn’t matter in the 76-59 win, of course, because the Terps have bigger players and more talented players and an Xfinity Center cheering section of an announced 12,540. But against the worst opponent on Maryland’s schedule — bookmakers in Las Vegas didn’t even bother trying to assign a point spread — it was a nonetheless dispiriting display before nine days off.
“I can’t explain it,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I just think they were much more prepared and excited to play the game than our guys were. We just didn’t guard anybody the first four minutes.”
The Terps (10-3) had an excuse for some of their lethargy. They were missing three starting-caliber players. Sophomore forward Justin Jackson didn’t play because of shoulder soreness, his second straight absence. Sophomore guard Dion Wiley (illness) didn’t dress for the game. And freshman center Bruno Fernando remained out with a high-ankle sprain.
All of which led to weird moments of cognitive dissonance. Catholic is the type of team, for instance, against which a walk-on such as Reese Mona might expect to see significant minutes. The Cardinals (2-5) had won just two of their first six games this season. They had been paid to come to College Park under the premise that they’d roll over.
But there was the freshman guard on the court with four minutes to play in the first half — and the Terps up just two. Maryland entered halftime with a six-point lead, 37-31, and Mona still playing, the stats not flattering the Terps. They had been one of the country’s top rebounding teams; on Wednesday, they had just three more boards in the first half. Their shooting percentages were nearly equal, at just above 46 percent. Catholic had two fast-break points; Maryland had none.
The belated blitzkrieg eventually came. Over a hot-shooting stretch early in the second half, the Terps turned a single-digit lead, 42-33, into one they could feel at ease with. Sophomore point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. (team-high 18 points) hit a 3-pointer. Junior forward Ivan Bender converted a layup. Then sophomore guard Kevin Huerter (14 points) and senior wing Jared Nickens (14 points) converted from deep, too. Like that, it was 53-35.
“We just had to play harder and play better, and we did that,” Nickens said.
Through the final buzzer, Maryland went through the motions, which was all it had to do. The Terps got easy points on turnovers and threw balls away themselves (15 total). They were slow to loose balls and not much better in the open floor. Even with starters playing into the game’s final minutes, they led by only as many as 22.
That was less than the final margin of victory in three of their games against Division I opponents.
“A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to play these games, but that’s not an excuse,” said Cowan, who shot 5-for-15 overall but also had seven assists and six rebounds. “We have to always come out. Coach always says, if we want to be a championship team, we always have to play like a championship team, not just in certain games. That’s on us. We’ve got to take care of that.”
Slow start: Despite the Terps’ halftime lead, there was no better barometer of the even play over the first 20 minutes than how long each team led for. Catholic was up for 9:46, Maryland for 9:13.
The Terps scored the night’s first two points as easily as expected, with a dunk by senior center Michal Cekovsky just 15 seconds in. But the Cardinals hit five of their first seven shots and led 15-10 less than six minutes in before Maryland responded. A mid-range jumper by Nickens pushed the Terps ahead 18-17, only for Catholic to punch back with a 3-pointer. Not until sophomore forward Joshua Tomaic (seven points and a game-high eight rebounds) scored five straight points did Maryland lead by more than two. By then, over 11 minutes had elapsed.
“I think I probably should’ve asked one of the assistants to pinch me during the second media timeout, because I thought I was dreaming a little bit,” said Cardinals coach Steve Howes, a Washington native and lifelong Terps fan.
Storied history: Catholic competed in Division I from just 1976 to 1981, but the Northeast Washington school has a surprisingly competitive history against Maryland. With Tuesday’s win, the Terps are 13-10 all time against the Cardinals. The teams first met in the 1910-11 season, Maryland’s first varsity season, and they last met in 1978.
Former Maryland assistant coach and George Washington head coach Mike Lonergan played point guard for Catholic and later coached the team, winning the Division III NCAA championship in 2001.