Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon. Playing at a neutral site at the Verizon Center against George Washington in the annual BB&T Classic Dec. 8, the Terps, in the first half, allowed the Colonials to slice through their defense like Stefon Diggs through a flat-footed secondary. GW ended up shooting 42 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3-point range and canning 12 of 15 free throws on its ways to a 41-29 halftime lead.
Enter junior forward Jonathan Graham, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound banger who had played 19 minutes total during Maryland's previous eight games. The Penn State transfer, who earned an NCAA hardship waiver prior to the season, was thrust into the action and sparked a lethargic Terps' squad. Though he played six minutes during the first half, it was his nine second-half minutes that helped boost Maryland on a late run before falling victim to a buzzer-beater, 77-75.
"I was just ready to go. Getting on the floor, I wanted to get out there and bring some kind of spark to the team," Graham said. "I just had the attitude where I didn't want to get scored on, I didn't want to get pushed around. I wanted to bring my team back -- that was my mindset."
In 15 total minutes, Graham ended up with five points, five rebounds and three blocked shots, all season-highs for the big man. Those latter two statistics, though, are what resonated with Turgeon and the team.
"Jon changed everything for us," said Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon, whose team begins Atlantic Coast Conference play tomorrow night at Boston College. "Jon, by playing hard, rubbed off on everyone else. Jon's going to play early and often if he plays like he did [against George Washington]. Jon definitely is [bringing the effort]."
Effort. It's what Maryland has lacked for long stretches this season -- most noticeably in losses to Connecticut, Oregon State, Ohio State and now GW -- and once again failed to find for much of the Colonials' bout.
Starting sophomore center Shaq Cleare has struggled on both ends of the floor for long stretches this season, and defensively he's failed to corral rebounds or consistently protect the rim. His backup, sophomore Charles Mitchell, has put up some points, but he's been slow reacting at times and hasn't exactly made opposing teams fear taking it to the hole.
Graham, though, added some much-needed toughness to a frontcourt that's bordered on soft. Against the Colonials, he actively hit the glass, fronted his man down low, fought through screens and refused to allow easy shots.
"That's my way of playing, that's my way of winning," said Graham, who is the son of former Terps great Ernie Graham. "You have to be tough on defense, you have to be gritty. You have to show the other team you're willing to play defense for however long it takes."
Perhaps there's no better way to show out defensively then to stuff the ball right back in your opponent's face. But with departed center Alex Len off to the NBA, Maryland has lacked that true rim protector, a fact Turgeon has harped on many times through these first nine games.
For at least one night, however, Graham, filled the void, leading both sides with three rejections.
"I've kind of always been a shot blocker. I was taller than everybody else in high school so it was easy," said Graham, who prepped at Calvert Hall in Towson, Md. "But blocking shots kind of became a habit for me. It's just like a matter of timing and everything.
"And blocking shots is a big part of defense … but it's not all about blocking shots. It's about staying in front of your man and making him take tough shots."
That's the kind of attitude and mindset the Terps could and should feed off of. Sophomore Jake Layman -- who evidenced Graham's second-half 3-point play where he scored inside, drew a foul and then pumped his fist -- called Graham's GW effort "huge."
"[Graham] brought a lot of intensity on both ends," Layman said. "That and-one he had was huge… He's always practicing hard, going 100 percent."
After Graham came on during the second half, Maryland indeed seemed to play with more defensive fire. The Baltimore native said he was proud of how the Terps' assumed a "never say die" attitude, always believing they could win the game.
"My thing is to lead by action. Actions speak louder than words," said Graham, who recorded two of his three blocks and four of his five boards during the game's final 20 minutes. "I'm going to come out as hard as I can on both ends, bringing that intensity. And I think my teammates will do the same. I know they will."
Turgeon suggested Graham could see even more minutes moving forward, starting with the Boston College game tomorrow night. But playing time isn't something Graham is readily clamoring for. He said he knew what he was signing up for when he transferred to Maryland, a team with two entrenched big men, and isn't out to usurp anyone.
But when Graham does see the floor, he wants everyone in the arena to know he's out there.
"I'm going to play as long as I can and as hard as I can," Graham said. "But my thing is I want to earn whatever I get. If I work hard enough … whether I play five minutes, 15 minutes or not at all, I just want to win games. I came here to help this team win games and get them back to where they need to be."
Known as a defensive guru, Turgeon would undoubtedly love to start five guys with Graham's attitude.
Grit. Fire. Intensity. And a whole lot of defense.
"Every coach wants to emphasize defense, and Coach Turgeon definitely does, and I do as well," Graham said. "The saying goes, ‘Defense wins championships.' I believe in that; that's what I bring to the table."
Graham's Intensity, Grit Rub Off on Terps
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