- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ashton Pankey had barely played in a game 10 days earlier, so the Maryland forward departing after less than three minutes Wednesday wasn’t unprecedented. But this was different.

Pankey wasn’t banished to the bench. He was trapped in the trainer’s room while receiving three stitches for a busted lip while the Terrapins struggled with Florida International.

More than 10 minutes of game time passed, and there was no sign of Pankey, on the court or even on the bench. And deep inside Comcast Center, it wasn’t any better for him, either.

“I just wanted to get out there so bad — ‘Can they hurry up? Please?’ ” said Pankey, whose lower lip was taped after the game. “I’m just lying on a table while they’re working on my lip.”

The redshirt freshman eventually returned, and his 13 points, six rebounds, two steals and two blocks helped the Terrapins (6-3) secure a 65-61 victory in their latest high-wire act.

The results matter for Maryland, as they usually do. But in this season especially — with a new coach, an undermanned team, few veterans and a surplus of tight games — moments of maturation mean just as much for the Terps.

Such was the case for Pankey, who logged only a minute in a Dec. 4 victory over Notre Dame. Of the Terps’ seven available scholarship players, no one else has played less than 10 minutes in any game. Excluding that contest, Pankey’s season-low is 17 minutes.

It was an important message from coach Mark Turgeon, who that night described Pankey’s brief stint as a “coach’s decision.” And there was an important response from Pankey, who scored 13 points in back-to-back games while also earning back the starting position he lost after four games.

“Ashton was well-coached in high school, so he knows how,” Turgeon said. “The thing with Ashton is doing it every time. Sometimes as a coach, you have to do the things you have to do to get guys to do what they’re supposed to do.

“I’m proud of Ashton. He could have reacted a different way. He reacted the right way. It started in practice after the Notre Dame game. He’s been good.”

The Terps needed him Wednesday, particularly when guard Terrell Stoglin picked up his fourth foul with more than 13 minutes to play. With Stoglin shelved for nearly six minutes, Pankey scored five points as Maryland cut a six-point deficit to two.

His play in the final minute was equally important. Pankey blocked two shots on a possession, eventually collected a rebound and then made both free throws to bump Maryland’s lead to 59-54.

It was the sort of sequence the Terps hoped they would see from the New York native, who played only three minutes last season because of a hairline fracture of his left tibia. But as is the case for many of his teammates, a major part of Pankey’s season is learning via trial and error.

“Ashton was down on himself earlier because he didn’t play as much,” guard Sean Mosley said. “He came back in practice and worked extremely hard. That’s the only thing you can ask for from a guy like him. I know he’s going to get better from here on out because that’s the type of guy he is.”

Pankey’s growth mirrors Maryland’s progress. The Terps face a break of more than a week for exams before returning Dec. 23 to play Radford. They’ve avoided a surprising home loss, if only barely; Maryland’s average margin in its victories is six points. Despite their record, the Terps have been outscored by 19 points on the season.

Yet there continue to be signs of improvement. Turgeon believed Wednesday was the best Maryland played as a team on defense to date. And there are individual signs, too, including Pankey’s re-emergence over the last two games, split lip and all.

“We’ve had our downs,” Pankey said. “I’ve definitely had my downs as a player. And we’ve had our ups. I think staying together as a team, we’ll get through it.”

• Patrick Stevens can be reached at pstevens@washingtontimes.com.

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