Maryland men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon says his players have looked 'a little uptight because of our record and our ranking.' He hopes that changes after Wednesday's win over Penn State.
The question will continue to be asked until the Maryland men's basketball team wins another Big Ten road game or has a relatively easy game at Xfinity Center.
Is the recent spate of underwhelming performances — blowout losses at Indiana and Ohio State and narrow home wins over Northwestern and Penn State — the result of lacking cohesion, or a fall in confidence compared with earlier this season?
Even Terps coach Mark Turgeon seems to be perplexed at times.
Asked how Maryland (19-4, 7-3 Big Ten) overcame another slow start and shaky moments in the second half to finish off the Nittany Lions on Wednesday night, Turgeon said, "To me, it wasn't about X's and O's, it was about getting guys to relax a little bit and play hard and have fun.
"I just feel that we're just a little uptight because of our record and our ranking," he continued. "I don't know. We just seem uptight. I just tried to get them to relax. We relaxed and we played hard and we had energy and the crowd was great, and they [Penn State] came right back. Thank God we started that way. It was good for us."
Recreating that on the road, where Maryland won two of its first three Big Ten games but hasn't won since beating Purdue at Mackey Arena last month, will not be easy. The Terps play at Iowa on Sunday.
Senior forward Jon Graham was one of the players who helped Maryland loosen up on Wednesday night, scoring a career-high 16 points against his former team.
"Coach always wants us to play with confidence, to play loose, to play how it used to be [at] the park and everything, just playing free," Graham said. "You can't play this game all nervous and shaky. You don't play to the best of your abilities when do that. You play the best when you're free, because you know what you're doing and you work so hard in practice, so when the game comes, you just play and you enjoy yourself."
Junior forward Jake Layman said that was the focus of Turgeon's halftime talk.
"We felt like we were kind of tight in that first half," said Layman, who finished with 10 points and a team-high nine rebounds. "At halftime, we said we were going to play a little free and with more energy too. Try to get the crowd into it, and I think that helped us."
Maryland closed the first half with layups by Layman and senior guard Dez Wells to take a 29-28 lead, then started the second half on a 9-3 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Wells. But the Terps seemed to go back to protecting the lead and, perhaps subconsciously, their national ranking and potential NCAA tournament seeding.
It resulted in Penn State (14-9, 2-8) twice recapturing the lead — at 47-46 on a layup by junior guard Devin Foster with 9:49 to go and again at 50-49 on a 3-point play by senior guard D.J. Newbill with 7:56 left. Layman's layup 53 seconds later gave the Terps a lead they would never lose. Newbill, the Big Ten's leading scorer, missed his last five shots in a 6-of-19, 18-point performance.
"There are too many games lost down the stretch," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "The opposing teams make game-winning plays. We need to make those game-winning plays, not with four minutes, not with three minutes, not with two minutes. Under a minute to go, we need to make the necessary plays."
To its credit, Maryland has made those plays. The Terps are 5-0 this season in games decided by five points or less, compared to 3-7 a year ago.
On Wednesday, the Terps got a couple of baskets down the stretch from Layman, a drive and a couple of free throws by Wells (23 points) and a big dunk from sophomore center Damonte Dodd. And freshman point guard Melo Trimble took control with his playmaking despite continuing to struggle with his shooting (0 for 5 from the floor and 0 for 13 his last two games).
Wells, whose scoring output was his highest since he had 27 points in the second game of the season, said the Terps had to "get through some mental obstacles." He credited Turgeon and the coaching staff for "making sure that we keep our confidence and making sure that everyone stays mentally into it."
A number of players said Tuesday that the six-day break after their 80-56 defeat at Ohio State helped refresh the Terps, and Wells said Wednesday that it allowed him to feel better than at any point since coming back in late December after missing a month with a fractured wrist.
"I'm getting closer to [100 percent]," said Wells, who finished 8 of 10 from the field and also had seven rebounds (as well as five turnovers). "That time off helped everybody. It helped everybody get mentally refreshed and kind of rejuvenated. I feel our best basketball is ahead of us at this point."