COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Following Maryland’s 70-62 win over Cornell on Tuesday night, a game that started as a laugher before disintegrating into an erratic nail-biter, coach Mark Turgeon made a telling statement in assessing his players’ state of mind.
And it’s probably appropriate for Terps supporters as well with the ACC schedule days away from commencing.
“Maybe we’re a little caught up in a seven-game winning streak instead of where our team really is and where we need to be.”
With initial expectations as low as they’d been since the early years of the Gary Williams era, the whispers have grown that this 10-3 Maryland team might be better than anyone expected. The return of injured point guard Pe’Shon Howard and the debut of 7-foot-1 Ukrainian Alex Len have sparked excitement that the Terps can make noise in the ACC, where few teams have established themselves as potential threats beyond North Carolina and Duke at the top.
Jumping out to a 16-0 lead in the first 5 1/2 minutes of Tuesday’s game against Cornell was the latest shred of evidence in support of that theory. The Terps enjoyed a 23-point lead with 10:38 remaining in the first half, playing stifling defense and moving the ball around the floor as well as they have all season long as the Big Red had no answers for Maryland’s energy and talent level. It was Maryland’s best 10-minute stretch of basketball all season.
That lead shrank to 41-26 at the half, but Maryland was still in control, looking very much like a team capable of playing with anybody — even when considering Cornell entered the evening with a 4-8 record.
But then the second half started.
“We did what young teams do when [the game] is going easy,” Turgeon said. “We just thought it was going to be easy the whole game and so we quit guarding, we quit chasing down loose balls, we started shooting quick, we got a little bit selfish, and turned the ball over. I was not going to call timeout in the first four minutes and that was more of just trying to help them grow up.”
After shooting a blistering 63 percent in the first half, Maryland failed to register a field goal in the second half until senior Sean Mosley connected on a jumper with 8:34 left after the Terps’ lead had crumbled to just one. To their credit, the Terps did what they needed to down the stretch to secure the victory, making 14 of 17 free throws in the final 20 minutes and holding Cornell to just two points in the final 2:10.
However, the ugly second-half performance was just the latest snapshot of a young team not ready to handle success. Throughout the season, Maryland has struggled to hold significant leads against ordinary competition, a reflection of its immaturity as Turgeon pointed out after the game.
There’s no question the Terps are a better team than they were at the beginning of the season when Howard and Len were on the sidelines. The sophomore point guard allows Terrell Stoglin to focus on scoring — he entered the night sixth in the nation with a 21.8 points per game average — while Len has already shown enough in three games to make you understand why so many are excited about the big man’s potential.
But too many shortcomings remain, as Turgeon pointed out, that will doom the Terps in conference play more often than not. Maryland doesn’t shoot well enough to avoid long scoring droughts like the one it experienced to begin the second half. They take poor shots, with Stoglin heading the list in that department despite his undeniable talent.
The Terps lack focus on the defensive end and still struggle to defend beyond the arc. Fortunately, Cornell went just 7-for-30 from 3-point range or the Terps may have been dealt an embarrassing loss.
“In the first half, we played great defense and played together,” Stoglin said. “At the end of the game, we stayed together and won the game. We are only taking away positive things, not negative.”
Stoglin’s comments were exactly what you’d expect to hear, but you get the sense that Turgeon wants his players to focus a bit more on the negative in hopes of improving. A challenging trip to N.C. State awaits on Sunday as Maryland opens ACC play. The margin of error will shrink exponentially as the Terps won’t be able to survive lackluster performances like they did against Mount St. Mary’s, Florida International, and Radford.
The talent is there for the Terps to beat a few teams they probably shouldn’t, but they must also learn to finish off opponents and play intelligent basketball when enjoying a lead. Tuesday’s win over Cornell was the perfect microcosm of what to expect from an inexperienced Maryland team in 2012.
“We like to make it interesting, there’s no question about it,” Turgeon said. “It was so easy for us early. We were hitting shots, we were executing, we were defending at a level we haven’t defended at this year, and it just came so easy for us.”
It was a beautiful sight for the first 15 minutes of the game, but Maryland still hasn’t figured out how to play a complete game. Until the Terps do, it’s hard to imagine them surviving many contests in the ACC.