Even through a virtual press conference, the emotion of head coach Mark Turgeon and players cut through the room like a knife, the pain palpable through the screen after Maryland men’s basketball’s loss to Penn State to end the regular season last Sunday.
The Terps had led by as much as 16 points, but they crumbled down the stretch to suffer a 66-61 defeat on senior night. It was their second straight loss after turning the season around with a five-game win streak prior. Simply put, it was a gut punch.
“You have losses in life that are devastating, and this is one of them. A lot of tears in the locker room,” head coach Mark Turgeon said after that game.
After starting the year with a 4-9 record in conference play, the team would have tied for sixth place in league standings with that victory to end the regular season on a positive note. Yet all of that vanished in a matter of minutes, leaving the team heartbroken.
Turgeon later admitted that he didn’t know if his team would be able to gain its confidence back in time for the Big Ten tournament. And that surely seemed to be the case early on against Michigan State Thursday, with the Terps trailing by 12 points in the first half. However, Maryland rallied for its largest comeback of the season, overcoming the deficit for a 68-57 win to advance to the second round of the conference tournament for the first time since 2016.
“We’re a bunch of warriors. We’ve always had our backs against the wall throughout this year, we’ve had a lot of down periods, but we always find a way to respond. We got that grit, we got that toughness inside of us,” forward Jairus Hamilton said. “So any opportunity, any obstacle that comes our way, we’re gonna take it face on. And that’s what we did today and we came out with the W.”
After a night of despair, the team gained some life when it found out senior guard Darryl Morsell was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in a Zoom meeting Monday. Turgeon also had another message for his players, eager to instill back a positive mindset.
“Guys, we’re in. We’re in the [NCAA] Tournament. And we just need to relax, have more fun and play,” Turgeon recalled telling them.
It didn’t immediately translate, however. The head coach said the group was “still a little bit wounded” at the start of practice the following day. But players then began to get back in their groove, once again finding their footing on the court.
Still, he had doubts about his team’s state of mind, which were only heightened after the rocky start Thursday.
“I’m not gonna lie to you, I was a little worried about our confidence and our swagger coming into this game,” Turgeon said. “Those last two losses stunned us, kind of gutted us, and then Michigan State came out hot and we were down 12. We weren’t guarding, we weren’t really locked in our defensive assignments.”
Around three minutes in, the game was locked at four. But the Spartans went beast mode from there, making seven of their next eight shots to jump out to a 19-8 lead with the Terps struggling to defend. Nearly halfway through the opening frame, Maryland was in a 23-11 hole.
During a timeout, Turgeon stressed to players that they needed to claim back their defensive identity and guard the ball as a unit.
Things began to shift from there as the Terps found their competitive edge back, ending the half on a 23-7 run, allowing it to jump out to a 34-30 lead. The standout defensive performance carried over into the second frame with ease, with Maryland forcing Michigan State to miss 24 of their 27 field goal attempts across nearly 21 minutes of gameplay combined between the two periods.
“It’s just about taking every punch and being able to punch back,” Wiggins said. “And even though they got out to a really good start, we had to get back to our defense and start to lock in and guard the ball the way we were capable of.”
The Terps did just that. They forced the Spartans into 18 turnovers in the victory, converting those into 27 of their 68 points. They also played with toughness in the paint, routinely drawing fouls to go 20-for-28 at the charity stripe. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo paced the sidelines in frustration as Maryland led by as much as 19 points en route to the win.
“Was I worried [when we went down 12]? Yeah, after coming off two losses, yeah, I was worried,” Turgeon said “But the guys did it, and that’s a really good sign for us because we haven’t done that a lot this year when we’re not playing great, just to really turn it on. … So it’s a real positive for us that we were able to do it today.”
The Terps are now set to face top-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals Friday, looking to win two contests in a conference tournament for the first time since 2012-13.