On Friday night, the day before Maryland took the floor in the NCAA tournament, Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon and his team gathered to discuss how far they’ve come.
They recalled how a preseason poll predicted the Terrapins would finish 12th in the Big Ten conference. They pondered how they were seemingly written off in early February, when their conference record fell to 4-9. And they mused about how UConn was entering Saturday’s matchup as the favorites.
“Did it put a chip on our guys’ shoulders?” Turgeon said Saturday after Maryland knocked off the Huskies, 63-54. “It probably did, absolutely.”
The Terrapins don’t have the star power of years past, or the raw talent that can change a game. They entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed. But what powered Maryland down the stretch of the season — to the tune of six wins in nine contests — was its defense. And in Saturday night’s win, that’s the area that came up biggest once more.
Maryland held James Bouknight, UConn’s high-scoring guard, to 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting. The Huskies shot just 32.3% from the field overall, and while they pulled in 22 offensive rebounds, Turgeon’s squad outlasted UConn, continuing a turnaround season with a meeting with No. 2 seed Alabama on Monday.
“We’re not dumb. We all thought this wasn’t going to happen,” Turgeon said. “But we stayed the course, we stayed positive, we kept trying to get better. We started with our defense.”
The Huskies entered Saturday averaging the sixth highest offensive rebound percentage in the country. And against a Terrapins squad that lacks size on the interior, UConn showed its dominance on the glass.
Three times in the first half, UConn pulled down three or more offensive boards in a single possession, and the team’s nine second-chance points in the first half kept the contest close. But for all the opportunities, the Huskies put together an otherwise anemic offensive display.
“Our guys played with great toughness. Really defended,” Turgeon said. “Didn’t rebound very well, especially the first 10 minutes. We couldn’t get a rebound.”
The Huskies missed 30 shots in the opening 20 minutes, including 15 of their last 16 attempts. And Maryland’s defensive performance on Bouknight — defending him with multiple bodies on drives — allowed Turgeon’s team to build an 11-point lead at the break.
Eric Ayala was the main scoring threat for the Terrapins, driving to the basket frequently en route to a team-high 23 points. Overall, Maryland shot 51.2% in the contest. However, while the lead swelled to 14 points midway through the second half, UConn hung around on the back of a 9-3 run to cut its deficit to seven.
But Darryl Morsell helped settle his squad with two free throws with just over two minutes remaining. Before he attempted his second, the senior turned around to his teammates and clapped his hands, as if to reassure them everything for Maryland was well under control.
Moments later, the 6-foot-5 guard fouled out. But the Terrapins held off a UConn push, with two baskets from Hakim Hart and a drawn charge down the stretch finalizing proceedings.
Those plays down the stretch put the finishing touches on Maryland’s first-round win. When Turgeon got to the locker room postgame, he grabbed a marker and wrote “toughness” on the board, before yelling, “That’s who we are.”
It took that toughness to turn around the season and get to this point. It’ll take more to keep the run going.
“It’s do or die at this point,” Ayala said. “You’ve got to leave it all out there. Empty the tank. I wasn’t ready to go home today.”
• Andy Kostka can be reached at email@example.com.
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