ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — The Maryland men’s basketball team came here last week with its collective confidence shaken. Coming off a home defeat to Oregon State last Sunday, the Terps arrived with an urgency to put their early-season problems behind them at the Paradise Jam.
When the Terps return to Maryland, they won’t mind trading warm breezes and blue skies for cold weather and rainy skies. All is well in their little world, especially after holding off previously unbeaten Providence, 56-52, in Monday night‘s championship game at the University of Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center.
“I didn’t feel good about us a week ago Sunday [after losing to Oregon State], but we had great practices. I knew we were going to play better,” coach Mark Turgeon said after cutting down one of the nets with his team. “I didn’t know if we could do this. This is pretty big for us. Hopefully it’ll give us confidence moving forward.”
It wasn’t easy. Leading by 12 points at halftime and by as many as 19 on a 3-point shot by defensive specialist Varun Ram (River Hill) with 12 1/2 minutes to go, Maryland watched as Providence (6-1) scored 12 straight points and eventually cut its deficit to 51-49.
But junior Dez Wells made two huge shots and a couple of clutch free throws down the stretch to help Maryland hold on. The victory, finally clinched when sophomore forward Jake Layman made the second of two free throws with 1.2 seconds to go, gave Maryland (4-2) its first three-win regular-season tournament championship outside the Baltimore-Washington corridor since 1998-99.
Wells, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, finished with 13 points, as did junior forward Evan Smotrycz, who also collected 11 rebounds and helped the Terps outrebound one of the nation’s leading rebounding teams, 45-38.
“We gutted it out. Thank God we built a big lead,” Turgeon said. “It’s huge for our program. Anytime you win a championship it’s big, and to beat a quality team.”
Asked about the unusally late tip-off – the game started at 11 p.m. local time – Turgeon said that what amounted to a bit of midnight madness barely affected his team. The Terps scored the game's first two points and despite early foul trouble on Wells, quickly built their lead into double digits.
“My guys were really focused, whatever time the game ended last night. My guys were really determined that we were going to win this thing,” Turgeon said. “Providence was a team that was probably getting votes and being close to being a Top 25 team. We’ve let some things slip by us. We had to take care of business tonight.”
Wells certainly did. After missing two shots at the end of a season-opening one-point loss against then-No. 18 Connecticut at the Barclays Centers in Brooklyn, N.Y. , Wells made a huge floater in the lane and then converted a pair of free throws with 22 seconds to play.
Asked whether the championship here makes up for losing the opener to the Huskies, Wells said: “It doesn’t make up for it, but it’s just a great step in the right direction for us. Moving forward we just want to build on this win. We’re going to stay hungry and start watching film and see what we did wrong.”
Turgeon said his team’s personality changed after it lost at home to Oregon State and was embarrassed on national television, particularly in the way the Terps were manhandled inside.
“It’s big because we didn’t start the season off very well, and we were adjusting to being without Seth [Allen],” Turgeon said. “I think we’ve learned how to play with this group. We changed our identity from just a finesse team trying to outscore people to really guard, and I think we beat an excellent team tonight and we just locked them up.”
While the Terps missed their share of easy shots and finished 21-for-58 overall and 4-for-13 on 3-pointers, the Friars went long stretches without scoring. Providence wound up 16-for-59 from the field, including 3-for-16 on 3-point shots.
In the hallway outside his team’s lockerr oom, Providence coach Ed Cooley said: “Credit Maryland. They played better than we did. We were terrible. We played seven minutes in a 40-minute game. We couldn’t have shot any worse if you had given us a blindfold.”
Still, Maryland’s lack of depth seemed to catch up with the Terps in the second half. After Ram’s unlikely 3-pointer seemed to be the sign of an impending blowout win, the Friars had other ideas and chopped their deficit to 51-49 on a four-point play by guard Bryce Cotton (19 points) with 1:31 to go.
Asked what he was thinking when the Friars had seemingly taken control of the game, Turgeon said: “We were really struggling. We just could not score. We got to get a low-post game better. Normally when you can’t make shots, you go to your low post and we couldn’t score there either. I was just hoping that we could make a shot.”