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Slow starts still plague No. 17 Maryland as season winds down with visit from No. 9 Michigan

If there is a common thread running through half of Maryland’s eight defeats this season, it occurs in the first few minutes of the game.

Shots are missed. Passes are stolen, or simply thrown away. The opponent’s early lead mushrooms, often into double digits right before or immediately after the first media timeout.

And the Terps are left to play catchup the rest of the game.

While Maryland has erased big early deficits to win — the largest being a 14-point hole against Indiana on Jan. 11 after the Hoosiers scored the first nine points of the game — many of the sluggish starts have quickly doomed coach Mark Turgeon’s team.

It happened against No. 9 Michigan, No. 17 Maryland’s opponent Sunday at Xfinity Center, in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Feb. 16. The Wolverines, ranked sixth at the time, went up 21-6 midway through the first half and eventually went on to a 65-52 win.

Perhaps the most glaring example came Wednesday at Penn State. The Nittany Lions had an 11-point lead just over five minutes into the game, doubled it by halftime and went up by as many as 29 points in a 78-61 loss for the Terps.

It was the largest margin of defeat for Maryland (21-8, 12-6 Big Ten) this season.

“We’ve moved on. We left it in the locker room, we left it on the bus when we dropped them off that night,” Turgeon said after practice Saturday. “We’ve moved forward. We’ve practiced well. We’ve had a really, really good season for such a young team.

“We laid an egg. If we can’t get fired up to play our last two home games and then be a part of some postseason tournaments, then something’s wrong. I think it’s going to be a blessing for us that we went through that and it showed the last two days in practice.”

While starting games slowly has been a constant this season — as well as with several other teams in Turgeon’s eight years — the past six games have been particularly troublesome. Surprisingly, the Terps have won four of them.

In the first five minutes of those six games, Maryland has scored a total of 19 points, shooting 7-for-44 from the field with 10 turnovers. In the four wins, the Terps have been down by a combined nine points at the five-minute mark.

In the two losses, Maryland has been outscored a combined 24-5.

Asked Saturday if he has to change his approach, and possibly his lineup, to get his team to start faster, Turgeon said, “We really talked about it the last two days. The key is that we make a shot. Make a layup, get fouled, do something early to get us going.

“And not turn the ball over. Not throw it to them where they’re getting a wide-open 3 in transition. We talked about it a lot. I’m just hoping that we come out tomorrow and maybe put it behind us. It’s gone on longer than I had wanted it to.”

Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph), who called the Penn State loss “humbling,” said Saturday that the key is playing with more energy from the opening tip.

“Just be more assertive at the beginning,” Morsell said. “We’re relaxing too much. We’ve got to be more aggressive offensively [and] defensively. I know Coach Turgeon has been taking a lot of the blame. It’s all us. We’re the ones on the court.”

Turgeon hasn’t ruled out the possibility of changing his starting lineup. The question is whether or not to move freshman wing Aaron Wiggins from his role as the team’s sixth man.

Wiggins was quickly subbed in Wednesday night after Morsell committed two early turnovers.

On a night when nearly every Terp played poorly, Wiggins finished with 11 points (despite missing all four 3-point tries), five rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes. It was his third game in double digits in the past five.

“He’s comfortable off the bench,” Turgeon said. “Who knows … what we’re going to do? We’ve still got a lot of basketball ahead of us. … We talked to him about that. He’s comfortable where he is. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to make a change.”

It could be determined Sunday by Michigan’s starting lineup. Playing without senior wing Charles Matthews in Wednesday’s 82-53 home win over Nebraska, the Wolverines started sophomore power forward Isaiah Livers.

ESPN reported during the game that Matthews said he had “significant ligament damage” in the ankle he injured in last Sunday’s home loss to then-No. 10 Michigan State, but a team spokesman refuted that statement and said his injury was “day to day.”

Turgeon said Livers “is a little better matchup” than Matthews for freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), quickly adding, “Jalen’s guarded guards all year. … Jalen can guard in this game. He’s just got to be locked in and ready to go.”

Smith is not alone in that regard.

The starters, in particular Morsell, junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and sophomore center Bruno Fernando, seemed to be lackadaisical at both ends against the Nittany Lions, who beat the Terps in State College. Pa., for the third straight year.

“As leaders, we’ve got to lead by example and we didn't, so we’ve got to be better at that,” Morsell said. “It’s March. The season’s slowly winding down. The freshmen, they don’t know what to expect. As veterans, we’ve got to teach the younger guys.”

Said Wiggins: “It’s definitely a big eye opener for us. That was a tough game. We’ve got to put it behind us. We’re moving on. We just got to make sure we come prepared to play for each and every game.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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