EVANSTON — For a team that’s supposed to compete for a national championship, Maryland’s conference-play-opening edging of Penn State raised many an eyebrow.
The Terps needed to stage an epic comeback in order to beat the basement-dwelling Nittany Lions in College Park. They needed a herculean performance from Diamond Stone, who scored 39 of the team’s 70 points that night.
The Terps are the No. 4 team in the country, a ranking that could improve come Monday considering the No. 1 Michigan State Spartans suffered their first defeat earlier this week. But it seems like we’ve still been waiting for the uber-talented Terps to show us they deserve that elite status and that they can live up to the ridiculous expectations they carried into the season.
Saturday’s 72-59 win over Northwestern won’t alleviate all concerns, but in bouncing back from a worrisome performance in the conference opener, Maryland maybe looked as good as it has all season.
“We knew we were lucky to win the other day against Penn State,” head coach Mark Turgeon said Saturday night. “We didn’t really practice a lot (following the win over Penn State). We wanted our energy level to be high, and it showed. But our guys, they know that they weren’t great in the home opener against Penn State, and they wanted to kind of redeem themselves. Plus, coming in here, (Northwestern is) 13-1, they’re undefeated at home. It kind of gets your attention to be dialed in.”
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The Wildcats might or might not be a high-quality foe, their 13-1 record entering Saturday’s game perhaps an indication of a real good team or of a real light schedule. More evidence will be needed to make that determination. But the Terps looked good enough to beat anyone. They raced out to a 20-point lead at the half thanks to some hot shooting but mostly thanks to a terrific defensive effort. Eight Northwestern turnovers led to nine Maryland points in the first half. And no matter what the Cats tried to do, it seemed the Terps had it sniffed out and shut down.
Turgeon knew that Northwestern was uncharacteristic in shooting 2-for-20 from 3-point range, but he also knew that his team’s preparation paid off. After the Cats went to College Park and came a crazy Dez Wells putback away from grabbing a huge upset win last season, Turgeon wanted to make sure his Terps didn’t take them lightly again.
“We were prepared,” he said. “We were really prepared today mentally. I don’t think we knew how good they were last year when we played them, and what’s happened since they left our place, they’ve won a lot of games and they had our attention. We were much more prepared. We really, really put a lot of effort into their — they run a ton of plays. And we put a lot into it, and it showed.”
The defense should most definitely be commended. But sometimes, as the saying goes, the best defense can be a good offense. And in the second half especially, whenever Northwestern looked to be threatening, chipping into the Maryland lead just enough to get the fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena riled up, the Terps stopped any thoughts of a comeback dead in their tracks with a back-breaking 3-pointer.
The Terps splashed home 11 triples Saturday, and Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon and even Jake Layman came up with one dagger after another in the second half. Trimble finished with 24 points, Sulaimon with 16.
“When Sheed shoots that way, Melo’s playing the way he was, Jake’s playing well, we’re pretty good,” Turgeon said.
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Despite the best start to a season in program history, if Northwestern returns to its annual place in the bottom half of the conference, a Jan. 2 win in Evanston might not mean much when Maryland has its sights on a national title in the spring.
But what was on display Saturday was everything the Terps need to do to win a championship. They shot the 3-ball very well, played sensational defense, handled a raucous road environment and executed a coaching plan to perfection, refusing to take any opponent lightly and playing with something to prove.
It’s that magical combination that’s produced champions in the past.
The talent is there. Trimble has been terrific, Sulaimon and Robert Carter have made big-time impacts as veteran newcomers, and Stone is showing he can be as good a big man as there is in college basketball. But if these guys can put all that talent together with all the things they did Saturday, then the rest of that 68-team bracket better watch out.
“Our guys like to be challenged,” Turgeon said. “And you’re coming in, you’re playing a team on their home court, they’re averaging 80 points a game, great shooters all around. I think our guys were just really dialed in.
“I think our guys embraced the road. It was a close one at North Carolina, we haven’t played on the road since, so we really embraced the road tonight and really liked the environment, which was good to see.”