Choose nearly any year in the last quarter-century, and playing Duke meant a pick-your-poison proposition.
It was that way for former Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose name was unveiled on the Comcast Center court on Wednesday and whose teams found ways to outplay and out-scheme the Blue Devils more than a few times over 22 seasons.
And it was that way for Mark Turgeon, whose first date with Duke ended like it does for so many coaches – with a loss.
Turgeon gambled that Maryland would be better off staying close to the No. 8 Blue Devils on the perimeter. It was arguably the right call. The only problem was Mason Plumlee, freed of facing double teams, eviscerated the Terps for 23 points and 12 rebounds in a 74-61 victory before a capacity crowd.
“I wouldn’t change a thing that we did defensively. I just wish that what we were doing, we did a little bit better,” Turgeon said.
Terrell Stoglin scored 16 points for Maryland (12-7, 2-3 ACC), which dropped its third straight game.
The game arc was vintage Duke – grind out possessions, gradually stretch a lead and then methodically finish off an opponent in the closing minutes. It was a fair result for the Blue Devils (17-3, 5-1), owners as they often are of both a talent advantage and an impressively deep capacity for smart play.
Even still, it was a night of only fleeting disappointment for the Terps. Sure, it stunk for Williams’ former players to not collect a victory on the night he was honored. And Maryland surely couldn’t be happy to see its postseason aspirations dealt another sobering blow.
Yet the Terps, particularly on defense, did a lot of what they desired. They negated Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins. They limited Duke to one shot for nearly the entire first half. They kept the Blue Devils within reasonable reach – the wrong end of a 64-58 margin with 2:24 to play – until the final moments.
And they did as Turgeon asked, something clearly not the case on many nights in the season’s opening stages.
It was progress in a wider-ranging sense, a step forward over the long haul even if little solace can be found at the moment.
“At the end of the day, we want to get better but we want to make sure we get wins at the same time,” guard Pe’Shon Howard said.
The sophomore and his teammates had to settle for only the former. But their ability to stick with the script most likely to deliver a win aside from a couple lapses stood out for a team that struggled to piece together two or three solid defensive possessions only a couple months ago.
Plumlee gunked up the plan as he easily surpassed his season-high of 17 points. He’d also managed only 14 points over his last two games.
“I think we did a great job listening to [Turgeon],” said forward Ashton Pankey, who found himself matched against Plumlee for much of the night. “Mason Plumlee had a really good game. He’s hitting shots I didn’t expect him to make. We basically had to do a better job with the bigs. We should have had a better defensive effort tonight. I don’t want to feel like a loss is based on my part, but I kind of do.”
Turgeon, not unlike his silver-haired and perhaps Hall-of-Fame-bound predecessor, wants to see a willingness to be coached and an eagerness to work. He got both Wednesday.
Like Duke, the Terps wound up with a reasonably fair result in the end. Much like Williams in his early seasons at Maryland, Turgeon can’t match elite talent with elite talent. But he can coax premium effort.
On this night, that was a signal good times – maybe even close to the peaks the man of the hour enjoyed during his multi-decade run in College Park – could arrive before long.
Just not yet – and not against Duke.
“We’re young,” Turgeon said. “We just can’t keep up. In the end, our defense wasn’t quite good enough and our rebounding wasn’t quite good enough and our free throw shooting wasn’t quite good enough. But our effort was good enough.”