While Maryland has traditionally started games and second halves slowly in its eight years under Mark Turgeon, the Terps had a history of closing games well.
It was especially true during Melo Trimble’s three seasons. Their record in games decided by six points or fewer was a dominant 31-8 from 2014 to 2017. Maryland went to three straight NCAA tournaments, the only three in Turgeon’s first seven years.
Since Trimble’s departure, Maryland has gone 5-12 in those close games, including a 62-60 loss at Purdue on Dec. 6 and a 78-74 defeat at home to Seton Hall on Dec. 11. The Terps were 4-9 in games decided by six points or fewer last season, and finished a disappointing 19-13 overall to miss the postseason.
After returning from a short break for Christmas, Turgeon had a message for his now 9-3 team as it prepared for Saturday’s game against Radford (7-5).
“I told them, ‘Guys, we’re a couple of five-minute stretches late in games from being 11-1. Instead we’re 9-3. You’ve been great; you’ve just got to keep getting better,’ ” Turgeon said after practice Friday. “That’s kind of been our approach.”
With the Big Ten season ready to resume Jan. 2 against Nebraska, Turgeon is hopeful his Terps can reverse what has become a disturbing trend the past two seasons.
Asked if a team’s confidence can be either raised by its late-game success or shaken by failures at critical junctures, Turgeon said, “All you can do is try to learn and get better from it.”
Turgeon said that in each of of the Terps’ past two losses, the breakdowns started to occur with about eight minutes left in the game. In each game, the Terps had the lead and some momentum.
At Purdue, Maryland led 54-52 on a jumper by junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. with 7:49 to play. The Terps then didn’t score for more than three minutes, missing four shots (including two dunks) and committing two turnovers.
The Boilermakers went on a 7-0 run to seemingly take control, but helped Maryland get back in the game with its own sloppiness, giving the Terps a chance to force overtime or win in regulation before Cowan’s ill-advised corner 3-pointer was blocked before the buzzer.
Against Seton Hall, Maryland led 56-52 on a 3-point shot by sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) with 7:50 remaining. Morsell had chances to extend the lead twice, but missed a pair free throws and a layup.
With the score tied at 64 after a layup by freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) with 3:36 to go, a turnover by Cowan led to a fast-break layup by sophomore guard Myles Cale to start a 6-0 run by the Pirates.
In that span, the Terps had two turnovers and a jumper blocked. Two were by Cowan, including the blocked shot. Though Maryland hit its last four free throws, it missed eight of its first 16 in the loss.
After getting within three points at 71-68, Maryland missed 3-pointer by sophomore center Bruno Fernando when a 2-pointer would have sufficed.
“We had one turnover in the second half going into the last five minutes [against Seton Hall] and we had three straight,” Turgeon said. “You just try to learn from it. I’m not making excuses. We’ve got a young basketball team and guys in different roles.
“It’s a long season, heck of a tough schedule ahead of us. I love coaching this team. I believe in this team. We believe in each other. We just haven’t got it done in a couple of games we wish we would have and everybody would talk about how great we are.”
Morsell, who had helped the Terps overcome an 11-point deficit early in the Seton Hall game to take a four-point lead at halftime, said Friday that he doesn’t believe he and his teammates doubt themselves when games get tight.
“I don’t think it wears on our confidence,” Morsell said. “After the game, we realized that it was one or two possessions and the game could have went in somebody else’s favor. I think it just comes from trusting our teammates and gaining confidence in practice.”
Asked where he thinks his team’s strengths and weaknesses are a dozen games into the season, Morsell said, “We’re rebounding well. We’re defending well. We’ve got two of the best bigs in the country [in Smith and Fernando].
“The freshmen came in and have done well so far. We need to continue to do the same thing. We need to improve shooting the ball to give Bruno and [Smith] more space. We’ve got to be able to hit shots for them.”
Many fans might think Saturday’s matchup against Radford is a proverbial “trap” game given the Highlanders’ record. But Turgeon pointed out that Maryland’s loss to Seton Hall and Radford’s road wins over then-No. 17 Texas and Notre Dame have ensured the Highlanders have the Terps’ attention.
“They had Clemson beat, too,” Turgeon said. “If you look at their schedule, the bigger the name, the better they play. We know we’re going to get their great shot. They’ve got good players. They’re a really good team. They’ve got a deep team. … I think our players realize what’s at stake tomorrow. We just want to play well.”
Note: Senior walk-on guard Andrew Terrell has been put on full athletic scholarship, Maryland announced Friday night on Twitter. Terrell has appeared in four games this season.