“I’ve always enjoyed coaching, but this has got to be one of the most coachable teams I’ve ever had – to this point, and now we’ve got our swagger back heading into post-season,” Turgeon said. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Mark Turgeon is often questioned by fans for not being fiery enough on the sideline, not challenging the referees as Gary Williams once did or not displaying some sort of histrionics in front of his bench to get the crowd fired up as Lefty Driesell was famous for doing.
Early in Saturday's 63-60 victory over Michigan State at Xfinity Center, Turgeon stomped the floor like Driesell did many times in his 17 seasons. Early in the second half, Turgeon walked onto the court during a timeout to yell at the refs as Williams did so often during his 22 years coaching the Terps.
"To say I wanted this one bad would be an understatement," an emotional Turgeon said after the game. "I really wanted to win at home. It's been a crazy year, 7-2 on the road, 5-4 at home. I wanted everybody to remember when they left this building today that we had a heck of a team.
"I was just trying to get myself fired up, get everybody fired up and let our team know that, 'Hey, man, we're going to do whatever it takes to win this game.'"
The crowd — and more importantly his young team — responded.
Damonte Dodd, who along with graduate transfer L.G. Gill had been honored prior to the game on Senior Day, thought it was odd to see Turgeon stray that far onto the court during the start of a television timeout.
"I saw that and I was like, 'Oh my god.' I thought he was going to break dance or something," Dodd joked after the game. "It was funny. His face was turning red, it was like, 'Slow down.'"
Dodd turned serious.
"But it was good," he said. "It really got the crowd into it. It got us going, because we hadn't really seen that. He has so much passion and love for the game and for this team. We love our crowd, our fans, and they were really behind us tonight. He really got them going, and they really got us going."
After watching an eight-point lead early in the second half erased with a 9-0 run by the Spartans, Maryland eventually celebrated when junior guard Melo Trimble buried a 3-point shot from the left wing with 1.1 seconds left. Michigan State freshman star Miles Bridges missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The victory helped the Terps clinch the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten tournament, which begins Wednesday at the Verizon Center. It also gave Maryland (24-7, 12-6) the same regular season record as last year's team.
While Turgeon never likes to compare teams from year to year, it was apparent from his emotions after the last regular season game that he took a lot of satisfaction about what this year's group had done — and what he had done coaching a team that has started three freshmen for all but two games.
"I've always enjoyed coaching, but this has got to be one of the most coachable teams I've ever had, to this point, and now we've got our swagger back heading into postseason," Turgeon said. "It's just been amazing. I think people sometimes think you're supposed to win. You're not supposed to win. You've got to go out and get it done, and we got it done 24 times and 12 times in this league."
A year ago, the Terps faded down the stretch because of their lack of depth, caused in part by then sophomore guard Dion Wiley's season-ending knee injury a couple of weeks before the opening game and Turgeon's reluctance to use slow-to-develop sophomore center Michal Cekovsky.
This year, Maryland was able to compensate for Wiley's slow return to form and Cekovsky's season-long struggle to stay healthy by developing a more consistent bench, led by junior guard Jaylen Brantley and frontcourt role players such as redshirt sophomore Ivan Bender and graduate transfer L.G Gill.
"When the year starts, you're think Ceko is going to be a big part of what you do, you're thinking Dion is going to be a big part of what you do, and they're not," said Turgeon, his voice choking with emotion. "And you've got to rely on three freshmen."
After the 8-1 start in the Big Ten that included five straight road victories, the Terps lost five times in seven games, including three straight. There were questions whether the Terps — particularly freshmen starters Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson — hit the proverbial wall.
But Cowan played well against both Rutgers and Michigan State, Huerter had a strong second half against the Scarlet Knights and Jackson, who seemingly had struggled the most down the stretch, finished with 15 points and six rebounds while holding his own against Bridges, who is expected to be a lottery pick this year.
Turgeon had another reason for the Terps going 4-5 the second half of the Big Ten season.
"Our league got good fast," he said. "We got a lot of young players [in the Big Ten]. Minnesota got better. Iowa got better. Michigan State got better. Michigan got better. Everybody got better down the stretch. Some of them might not get in the tournament. Illinois got better."
The Terps managed to revive themselves in time for the Big Ten tournament, and eventually the NCAA tournament. Turgeon thought back to last month's one-point loss at home to Purdue that started the late-season swoon, a game Maryland all but handed to the Boilermakers with two costly fouls.
As much as it could have been the difference in winning at least a share of the Big Ten title, what transpired has made this year's team perhaps tougher, more resilient and more cohesive than last year's. While never questioning the first Maryland team to get to the Sweet 16 since 2003, Turgeon clearly has affection for this year's group.
"We never gave up on each other," Turgeon said. "We stuck together. We're not the most talented group in the world, but we play together at both ends. That's my soapbox, guys. I love this team; it's been fun to coach."