Mark Turgeon didn’t get everything he wanted Tuesday night, most notably a victory.
He did receiving something important: More renewed belief in his first Maryland team.
The Terrapins played their strongest half of the season, then gradually faded with characteristic lapses in a 71-62 setback against Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
But Maryland (3-3) was better —- a lot better, actually —- than the bunch that dropped two of three games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
“I have a lot of faith in our team,” Turgeon said. “I didn’t have it a week ago when we came back from Puerto Rico. I feel a lot better about our team today, but we still lost. It’s about winning.”
Indeed it is, though it was always going to be a challenge to do much of that this season. The manpower is limited. The frontcourt is still raw. The point guard options are suboptimal, especially so long as sophomore Pe’Shon Howard is out with a broken left foot.
There are, however, in-game victories to be had. Forward James Padgett scored a career-high 16 points, playing perhaps the best four minutes of his career to start the game before cooling off. Guard Terrell Stoglin scored 25 points, including a stretch of nine straight for the Terps in the first half.
And for a half, the Terps were a functional outfit capable of flustering the unbeaten Illini (7-0), especially on the defensive end.
“I thought we did a great job from Puerto Rico to the last game to getting better every practice and becoming a better team,” Padgett said. “We still have steps to make, but we’re getting better.”
The steps are plentiful, no doubt. The Terps’ free throw foibles continued, and it cost them the chance to both expand their lead in the first half (they led 35-31 at the break) and inch closer once the Illini nosed ahead toward the end of the game.
Maryland’s defensive rebounding was also problematic, surrendering 14 offensive rebounds while snagging 19 errant Illini shots themselves. Illinois didn’t dramatically exploit that advantage, but was opportunistic enough to at least wear down the Terps’ defense.
“Second half, we just stopped guarding,” Stoglin said. “They were coming off picks and we weren’t exchanging or communicating. That’s how they were getting their buckets at the end of the game.”
The Terps remained within 54-52, only to allow Meyers Leonard an emphatic dunk to double the Illini’s lead. On the next trip , guard Sam Maniscalco (24 points) drilled a 3-pointer to bump Illinois’ edge to 59-52.
It would never be a one-possession game again, largely because of Maniscalco. The graduate student, who is listed at 6 feet and arrived in Champaign after three seasons at Bradley, scored 15 points after the break.
“The little kid killed us,” Turgeon said.
The breakdowns —- whether the eroding defense or the increasingly shoddy shot selection of Stoglin and freshman Nick Faust as the Illini seized control —- clearly gnawed at Turgeon.
But it could have been much worse. And, indeed, it was a lot worse not too long ago.
“We’re getting there,” Turgeon said. “I couldn’t have been more proud sitting over there in the first half, the way they were executing and running plays and doing things. We looked a lot different than we did in Puerto Rico.”
The outcome remain the same, but at least the Terps looked competent against a team likely to contend for an NCAA tournament berth. And going forward into December —- starting with Sunday’s date with Notre Dame in the BB&T Classic —- that’s encouraging enough, at least for now.
—- Patrick Stevens