COLLEGE PARK — Maryland had just won at Boston College, but Mark Turgeon was barely allowing himself to savor the moment. The Terps’ coach had already moved on to the next game and was fretting about Florida Atlantic, just 40 hours away.
Turgeon seemed to sense — correctly, it seems — that Saturday’s game had the makings of a “trap” for his team. It was the holiday season, Terps players were preparing for final exams, and there was the possibility of fatigue because of the short turnaround against a lesser-known opponent.
Sure enough, the Terps played a ragged first half in front of a half-empty Comcast Center but managed to defeat Florida Atlantic, 66-62, behind forward Jake Layman’s 22 points and Shaquille Cleare’s 10 points and one big block in the final minute.
“I told our guys it was going to be a tough game,” a relieved Turgeon said afterward. “At times, it could have gotten easier for us. We could have built that [lead] up 12, 14, 16 points, but we didn’t do it.”
Cleare’s point total was two off his career high. It was his first game scoring in double figures since last season. The sophomore said he knows his performance this year has been criticized by people who follow the team.
“I’ve been in a slump lately, and people have been saying a lot of stuff,” he said softly. “But it’s motivating me. Some people wrote some stuff. I don’t want to get into details about that. I can play this game, [I] just have to continue to work hard.”
Florida Atlantic’s last chance came after leading scorer Pablo Bertone (21 points) converted a layup and a foul shot with 1:40 left to pull the Owls within three, 62-59.
Layman’s 3-pointer made it 65-59, and Cleare blocked Bertone’s shot on the other end with 20 seconds remaining. The Terps weren’t threatened after that.
“Coach just told me to protect the basket,” Cleare said of the block.
Bertone, a guard who entered averaging 20 points per game, had 16 points in the second half after being held to five before that.
“Nick [Faust] was really the only guy on the team who could guard him,” Turgeon said.
Both teams had played in other cities Thursday night. The Terps (7-4, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) were coming off the victory at Boston College, their first conference game of the season.
“It’s definitely hard to play two games in three days at this level,” said Layman, who led the team in scoring for the fourth time this season. “We played through it. That BC win was a pretty draining win for us. We put a lot into that game. Coming in today, we knew we were going to have to grind it out.”
But it wasn’t merely fatigue the Terps were battling; it was Florida Atlantic’s zone defense. Maryland has struggled at time this season with being patient against zones.
“We have to be much more unselfish on both ends of the floor for us to be a better basketball team,” Turgeon said. “We were pretty selfish in that first half against the zone.”
Said Florida Atlantic coach Mike Jarvis, whose team fell to 3-8: “We came to one of the premier schools in the country and we gave them all that they can handle. This is all with very little turnaround time.”
After losing most of an early 13-point advantage, the Terps led just 33-31 at the half. Maryland shot 35.3 percent and got to the foul line just five times in the first half.
Turgeon shuffled his lineup to open the second half, inserting forwards Charles Mitchell and Jonathan Graham in place of Cleare and Evan Smotrycz (1-for-12 shooting).
The Terps began the half with more energy. Point guard Roddy Peters found Mitchell for a layup, and Dez Wells scored in transition to push the lead to 37-31. Moments later, Wells (10 points) hit the shot of the game — a double-pump, bank shot in the lane — and added a foul shot to up the lead to 40-33
“We’re coming off an emotional win, a game we had to win Thursday,” Turgeon said. “We had to execute down the stretch and we made some nice plays as a group. It wasn’t our best effort, but we did what we had to do.”