On a single evening amid a season of adjustment, Maryland was home to big-time basketball.
The Terrapins played in front of an electric crowd Wednesday. They replied to everything they encountered from Duke for nearly 30 minutes. They played smart on offense and followed a calculated defensive scheme from beginning to end.
Maryland wound up with a 74-61 loss to show for a nearly complete game against a superbly coached and more talented opponent. It happens, especially during the sort of program reboot the Terps (12-7, 2-3 ACC) are ensconced in this year.
The latest loss, though, is a hint the turnaround is reasonably on schedule.
“I don’t get caught up in winning and losing, and I know you don’t believe it because obviously you don’t like to lose,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “But what I saw tonight was encouraging. It was encouraging. We followed the game plan a lot better defensively. We’re growing up.”
For those with an eye on the future, those are promising signs. That’s important. Much of the eight-plus months since Turgeon’s hire were about setting up future prosperity and re-establishing the Terps as the national program they were in the not-too-distant past under former coach Gary Williams, who was honored Wednesday with a court-naming ceremony featuring one final fist pump.
Of course, it also was a reminder that simply is not the case at the moment, though not for absence of effort. Maryland still has only nine recruited scholarship players at its disposal. It’s proved to be enough to hang around with the likes of Illinois and Temple and Duke, just not to upend them.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because these Terps aren’t too much different than Williams’ final team. One player is asked to carry the offense on many nights, and the team is persistent but not quite capable of pushing through for a signature victory.
The big difference, besides being part of a new chapter in program lore, is the expectations levied last year and the lack thereof entering this season. But that’s little solace for veterans who see progress but would like to experience a tangible payoff before it is too late.
“I definitely do, but when we’re not winning, it’s hard to say,” senior guard Sean Mosley said. “If we’re going to make any type of progress, we have to come out with a win at the end of the day.”
In truth, Maryland approached Wednesday in a manner that provided an optimal chance to succeed. The Terps harassed Duke’s guards on the perimeter, limiting the Blue Devils’ backcourt to 1-for-13 shooting from 3-point territory.
The catch was single coverage in the low post, where Mason Plumlee scored 23 points. Some of his opportunities came off Maryland missteps. Some came as a result of offensive rebounds. And much of it was just exemplary play from a guy who had a combined 14 points in his previous two games.
It was a risk that ultimately didn’t work quite well enough, but the Terps stuck to the overall plan - and did so for nearly the entire game, something few would have guessed would happen against a quality opponent just a couple of months ago.
“For the most part, the last two games we’ve done a better job of just playing smarter and thinking better,” sophomore guard Pe’Shon Howard said. “… I would say we’re making strides. I think we did a lot better job of being smarter longer than we did in the Temple game. We just have to put it together completely.”
Does it happen this season, or even draw plenty of attention? It’s tough to say. The trappings of a game against a team Terps fans love to loathe won’t be repeated until next year. Maryland might not sell out Comcast Center again this season, though it certainly has a chance next weekend when North Carolina visits.