- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Maryland Terrapins aren’t the first team in sports history to say that tuning out the outside noise is a key to success. It’s a common, almost cliched refrain by now. Yet there are unusual circumstances like Saturday that make that harder to achieve.

Excitement and expectations ran high in College Park as ESPN brought “College GameDay” to the university’s campus for the first time in 15 years. Thousands of students packed Xfinity Center Saturday morning, alumnus Scott Van Pelt of ESPN made a prominent appearance and Anthony Cowan and coach Mark Turgeon appeared on the program as well.

That night, No. 9 Maryland came out flat against No. 24 Michigan State, immediately falling behind 14-2 and never catching up enough in a 78-66 loss.

“Being a kid, just growing up and watching it on TV not knowing that one day you’ll be a part of it. It was just a blessing to be here,” sophomore Jalen Smith said. “But I guess the excitement got to us too much and we just kind of let it slip out of our hands. They just went on runs that we couldn’t stop, and at points and times we couldn’t score and (couldn’t) stop them on defense.”

The loss was Maryland’s second in seven days — and it could have been its third in a row if not for an incredible 17-point comeback to beat Minnesota by one point earlier in the week.

With a share of the regular-season conference title within reach, the Terrapins have cooled off at the wrong time, giving way to questions about how the team is liable to perform under Turgeon when the spotlight shines brightest.

The Terrapins (23-6, 13-5 Big Ten) were outplayed in almost every facet of the game. The Spartans, like Minnesota before them, shot lights-out against Maryland, making seven of their first eight and finishing 47.5% from the field with 12 3-pointers. Turgeon pointed to Michigan State’s 13 points in transition and 19 second-chance points, which were made possible by the Spartans winning the battle on the boards. Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman outplayed Smith down low to finish with 14 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.

Turgeon said the game plan was the same as when Maryland beat Michigan State in East Lansing two weeks prior.

“They were terrific and we never really could get going,” he said. “Tied it at 23 all on (Ricky Lindo Jr.’s) 3 and then we didn’t run back and gave up a 3, and then we gave up a second chance point.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”

A nine-game winning streak across January and February rocketed Maryland to the top of the Big Ten standings before last week’s lull. The Terrapins still can clinch a share of the conference title at Rutgers on Tuesday, but Rutgers has yet to lose at home this year.

“It’s disappointing,” Cowan said. “You obviously want to do well for your fan base. The fan base did so much for us in terms of being here early this morning, just being loud. We just didn’t give them enough tonight. But it happens. Just gotta move on to the next.”

“It was great because the fans, they bring a lot of energy to the gym,” freshman Donta Scott added. “And they actually got rewarded by being on national television too and getting to celebrate with us.”

But with a minute left on the clock, most fans filed out of the arena, disappointed. Anger directed toward Turgeon grew on social media. Despite the Terrapins’ best season in five years, some of the program’s followers believe they aren’t going to make it far in March.

Recent results in the Turgeon era — a close Round of 32 loss last year, a failure to reach the postseason in 2018 and a first-round upset in 2017 — could serve as evidence. As would Saturday’s result in Maryland’s most hyped game of the season. On the other hand, the Terrapins may be able to learn from Saturday’s experience when the postseason arrives.

Tom Izzo, who’s coached at blue-blood Michigan State since 1983 and served as head coach since 1995, said he has seen “not many better” college hoops atmospheres than what Maryland served up Saturday. He went on to praise Turgeon for guiding the Terrapins to success amid changing from the ACC to the Big Ten in the 2014-15 season.

“Sustaining (success) just takes I think building a culture,” Izzo said. “You don’t do that in two years or three years. (Turgeon is) starting to build it. He’s got a hell of a culture.”

It may not be what a certain subset of Maryland fans want to hear about their coach, who has helmed the program for nine years, not three. But while one slow week may have harmed the Terrapins’ shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it was not enough to undo the campaign they’ve built for the past few months. Izzo pointed out that Maryland is still in control of its destiny.

“We’ve played 37 (good minutes instead of 40) a lot of times this year and haven’t found a way to win,” Izzo explained. “Maryland, on the other hand, has been in some tough games but found a way to win. That’s what championship teams do, and they’re still in the driver’s seat, deserve to be in the driver’s seat.”

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