COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Mark Turgeon had downplayed the notion that Thursday’s showdown with third-ranked Iowa was a must-win game for Maryland.
The coach reiterated that sentiment even after the No. 8 Terrapins earned their first win of the season against a ranked opponent and served the Hawkeyes their first loss in Big Ten play in a 74-68 final
“Everybody that cares about Maryland basketball was in a panic, but we never were,” said Turgeon, who reminded that all three of the Terps’ losses had come in challenging road environments. “We’re in a grind session right now. We’ve got a tough schedule ahead of us. We’re trying to be the best team we can be in March and peak at the right time.”
Panic? That description might be too strong, but concern was growing about whether the Terps were as great as many thought they could be after last Saturday’s loss at Michigan State. And though a victory over a top-ranked opponent doesn’t guarantee a Final Four berth any more than the previous losses meant a trip to Houston wasn’t happening, Maryland offered some peace of mind on Thursday night.
Only three other games against currently-ranked opponents remain on the Terps’ regular-season schedule, meaning opportunities to enhance the NCAA tournament résumé in hopes of a No. 1 or No.2 seed were running low.
The signature win was more important than it was impressive as both teams trudged through an ugly second half that hardly resembled the fast-paced, high-quality first 20 minutes of action. Maryland was just 9-for-27 from the field and 0-for-10 from beyond the arc in the second half, but stingy defense was the difference for the Terps in the first game played between top-10 teams in the 14-year history of Xfinity Center.
Maryland outrebounded the Hawkeyes after struggling mightily in that department against Michigan State and Northwestern, and Robert Carter Jr. and Jake Layman combined to stifle one of the best players in the country as Jarrod Uthoff was an abysmal 2-for-13 and finished with just nine points.
Rasheed Sulaimon and Carter each scored 17 to lead the way for the Terps and ease the burden on star point guard Melo Trimble, who didn’t receive enough help in the loss to the Spartans last weekend. Maryland has plenty of players who can score — that was evident in the 100-65 demolition of Ohio State two weeks ago — but that balance and toughness needed to surface against a high-quality opponent.
To go along with the balanced offense, the Terps handled adversity in responding to Carter fouling out on a questionable call with less than two minutes remaining. Out of a timeout, Maryland executed a pretty set that resulted in a Diamond Stone dunk, forced a turnover on the other end, and then extended the lead to 66-60 on a layup by Jared Nickens with 1:11 left.
Iowa wouldn’t seriously challenge again as its nine-game winning streak was snapped.
“I think we grew as a team,” said Sulaimon about moving past the loss at Michigan State. “There’s a fine line in being a good and a great team, and I think that team chemistry and stuff like that makes a big difference.”
Time will tell whether the Terps crossed over from good to great on Thursday, but the victory was one fans were waiting for to help confirm why they’ve been so excited all season.