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Yet again, the Terps set themselves up for nail-biter. But on Wednesday night, like they've done time and time again, the team hung on to defeat Florida International, 65-61.
After Terrell Stoglin sunk a pair of free throws to even the score with just over seven minutes remaining in the game, Mychal Parker played the role of the uncharacteristic hero, hitting to go-ahead free throws, just as he did a week ago against Mount Saint Mary's. Parker's free throws, accounting for two of his four total points, afforded Maryland (6-3) their first lead of the second half and their last of the game.
The Terps' decisive 12-6 run was paralleled by a stringent defensive stretch that held FIU (3-7) scoreless for nearly six minutes. During that span, Maryland held Isiah Thomas' squad to a ghastly 0-6 from the field, while forcing two turnovers.
"The difference in the game was, I thought, we really defended down the stretch," head coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. "We worked defensively, we talked about defense, we guarded the ball better. They couldn't score on us and we won another close game. That's the key: figuring out how to win close games."
Defense was the focus of practice all week, especially with Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown on hand. And while the Terps offense struggled with its leading scorer Terrell Stoglin fighting through a sprained ankle, it was the defense that helped salvage the win.
Maryland limited FIU to 27 points in the second half after Turgeon adjusted the team's approach towards defending ball screens. They also forced six turnovers which translated into nine points, essentially the difference in a game decided by four points.
"Today is the first day I felt like that we guarded the way we're capable of guarding. We're not a great defensive team … yet. We can be. I felt comfortable that we were going to get some stops and do the right things once we made our adjustments," Turgeon said.
Perhaps no stop loomed larger than that of Ashton Pankey's trifecta with 38 ticks left on the clock. With FIU cutting their deficit to three, Pankey smacked the ball out of Phil Taylor's hand, grabbed the rebound, then drained a free throw.
Pankey matched a career-high with 13 points, six of which came during Maryland's game-winning run. It's the second game in a row Pankey has reached that mark since playing for one minute during the Notre Dame game earlier this month.
The redshirt freshman forward said Turgeon was sending him a message that game, that he needed to be a better leader and teammate Since then, he's been piloting the defense, and his head coach said he's just barely scratching the surface.
"We were great defensively," Pankey said. "Coach [Turgeon] came out of the locker room; he was pumped up talking about how big our defense was tonight. He preaches defense; he wants that to be our identity as a team. It's definitely getting there."
The Terps earned their third straight victory, their first without surpassing the 70-point plateau. And they did so in their usual fashion – too close for comfort. Of the team's nine contests this season, five have been decided by seven or fewer points.
A win is a win nonetheless, as they say.
The majority of the first half that can be touted only as sloppy, for both sides, as the lead changed hands eight times. That was until the 5-foot-10 guard decided to flash the first signs of offense of the evening.
Taylor scored seven straight points en route to a 10-0 run. He also recorded two steals during that span – not surprising as the Golden Panthers lead the Sun Belt Conference in that category. He finished tied with a game-high 20 points.
FIU's offense stalled out of the tunnel, though. In the first 9:14, the team shot just 27 percent. However, Taylor and sharpshooter Jeremy Allen grew more comfortable as the half went on. Taylor scored four points and Allen drained four 3-pointers as FIU made nine of their next 15 shots and finished with a 46-percent mark.
Maryland, meanwhile, was stuck in a half-long shooting slump. They shot 9-25 from the field and missed on their only two 3-point attempts. Their 27 points were just seven shy of their season low against Alabama.
"I thought we were as bad as we can be in that first half. We let our offense affect our defense," Turgeon said.
While the shooting was anything but kind, it did overshadow the plethora of mistakes. Nick Faust, Berend Weijis and Stoglin and combined for five of the team's nine early turnovers, which led to 11 FIU points. In contrast, the team recorded just two assists.
The tables were turned, however, as the second half began. Maryland would only turn the ball over three more times, and that distorted assist-to-turnover ratio would move to 7:3. The offense was also awoken, as the team shot 48 percent and capitalized with 19 second-chance points.
Turgeon said the slow starts are not attributed to fundamental errors or poor execution. Instead, he said it's a matter of belief in themselves.
"The hardest thing with this group, right now, is confidence. We played with zero confidence except for Terrell. That's why at halftime you say: ‘Guys play as hard you can, do as well as you can, see what happens.' Hopefully, as the year goes on, individually we'll become more confident in ourselves and as a team we'll become more confident."