Maryland finds its own motivation in NIT

COLLEGE PARK — As the televisions in Maryland's locker room showed fans at Robert Morris storming the court after their team upset Kentucky in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night, the Terps seemed to differ in their reactions.

Some were happy that one of the top seeds in the 32-team field had been eliminated, as was Atlantic Coast Conference rival Florida State. Others were upset that the potential for two payback games — against the Wildcats and Seminoles — was now gone as well.

But as Maryland demonstrated late in the first half and for most of the second half of its 86-70 opening-round victory over Niagara that evening, winning what is considered college basketball's consolation tournament remains a priority for Mark Turgeon's young team.

"We're in to win, we're not in it just to buy time," said sophomore swingman Dez Wells. "We want to play as hard as we can for the seniors and send them out on the right note. That's really our focus right now. We're playing our best basketball right now, in the postseason, that's when it really matters."

Maryland (23-12) hopes that its season continues after Thursday night's second-round home game against Denver (22-9).

If the Terps win, they will play either Alabama or Stanford next week with a trip to the April 2 semifinals at New York's Madison Square Garden on the line. The championship game is scheduled there on April 4.

Senior guard Logan Aronhalt, one of three Terps to score 15 points again Niagara, said that winning any postseason game for a team as young as Maryland's is a good learning experience, regardless of how big — or small — a stage.

"Just playing in a tournament, and winning in a tournament, either NCAA or NIT or any postseason tournament is difficult," Aronhalt said. "You're at the end of the season. Emotionally you're tired, physically you're tired. Especially for the freshman, this is by far the longest season they've ever been a part of.

"I know when I was a freshman, it just seems like it never ends. All you want is that little bit of freedom. To really bring it at this point in the year is big for us. To learn how to make yourself keep going and keep enjoying it is really big for us."

Aronhalt said his teammates showed him something by how hard they played in front of what was the smallest crowd (4,053) of the season.

"I think we kind of brought the energy ourselves," Aronhalt said. "We knew the crowd wasn't going to be great, we knew basically it was going to be up to us to determine how we played. We couldn't feed off the energy as we did at times during the season. I think that brings the best out of us. We find out who we really are when there aren't that many people in the stands."

Said second-year coach Mark Turgeon, "I think our approach has been great, if we didn't show up [against Niagara] we would have lost. By our determination in the second half, it shows that we're pretty determined to get better and move on."

Turgeon said he is happy with the way his team responded Tuesday after playing well in the ACC tournament, where Maryland beat Duke for the second time this season and narrowly lost to North Carolina when Aronhalt's desperation 3-point shot in the closing seconds fell short.

"Five games in 10 days in three different cities, grueling, emotional games," Turgeon said. "It shows that we're getting emotionally tougher to come out and play the way we did [Tuesday]. I think our depth wore them down."

Turgeon doesn't buy the notion that his team played looser against Niagara than it had to close the ACC regular season and at last week's ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

"I think we've played pretty freely, I thought we played freely at Virginia, we just didn't get it done," Turgeon said. "I thought in the first half against Wake Forest we felt pressure, after that I didn't think we didn't play that way. Carolina was just three games in three days. I think we've played loose. I think we're determined to become a better basketball team and wherever that takes us, it takes us."

Freshman forward Charles Mitchell, who always seemed to be among the loosest of Terps, said he didn't see a different mindset.

"When we play basketball, you always want to go out there and have fun and play as a team," Mitchell said. "That's always going to be our mission, to go out there and don't stress about nothing and just play hard."

Mitchell said the Terps don't see as big a difference in the NIT and the NCAA as their fans and the media.

"It's a championship. Teams play to win, and we want to win a championship," he said. "That's the goal when we came here, no matter what game it is in or what conference we're in, we want to win a championship."