COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- In 15 years as a head coach, Mark Turgeon has seen his share of rivalry games, from those that register on the national radar to those that are barely a blip. Jacksonville State-Troy. Wichita State-Missouri State. Wichita State-Creighton. Texas A&M-Texas Tech. Maryland-Virginia. Maryland-Duke. And, for perhaps the last time tonight at 8 p.m., Maryland-North Carolina.
Although UNC (14-7, 4-4 ACC) owns a 121-57 series advantage over the Terps (13-9, 5-4 ACC), including a 57-16 mark in Chapel Hill, where the Feb. 4 game will be held, Turgeon understands how significant the matchup is. Especially for Maryland fans who are hoping UMD can muster some gumption against its traditional rivals before the school's final ACC season closes and Big Ten bouts begin.
"It's been a great game over the years. North Carolina is one of the premier programs in the country," Turgeon said during the Feb. 3 press conference. "It's a chapter that's going to end... But coming off the Duke-Syracuse game the other night, new rivalries can be born. So we're going to lose a great rivalry here with North Carolina, but I'm sure we'll make new ones in the future."
Undoubtedly they will, but the final Maryland-North Carolina match does resonate, even with the current Terps who have had the "it's just another game" mantra beaten into their brains. Sophomore point guard Seth Allen, who grew up in Virginia, said he remembers plenty of UNC-UMD games over the years and recalls it being "always a great game, a great, competitive rivalry" -- stoked by a hyped atmosphere.
"North Carolina, without a question," said Allen in reference to the rival with the loudest, most difficult arena he's played in. "It's louder than Duke. Duke is small and they have their Crazies sticking their hands out, but North Carolina is really loud. Last year [a 62-52 UMD loss in Chapel Hill], the first four minutes were so loud, and I remember then hitting a couple 3s and it just got super loud."
Sophomore power forward Charles Mitchell echoed his classmate.
"The atmosphere there, it's something you dream about playing in," he said. "It's a place you want to play, a place you want to do well and prove yourself. We're looking forward to it and hopefully we can come out with a win in our last game there."
Considering North Carolina has defeated Maryland seven of the last eight times the two squads have met in Tar Heel country, that won't be an easy task. But this 2014 version of the Terps, though inconsistent, are riding some momentum (OK, it's a two-game winning streak) into Chapel Hill.
The Terrapins eked out a Jan. 29 home victory against Miami, 74-71, thanks to a Dez Wells 3-pointer with five seconds left, but it was the statement 80-60 win at Virginia Tech -- Maryland's second ACC road win this season -- that has UMD thinking it can pull off an upset Feb. 4.
"We've gained confidence. We played well against Miami, really played well [at Va Tech], and we've had two good practices since then," Turgeon said. "They've really happily surprised me the last couple weeks in preparing for games; they're dialed in.
"But it's about keeping [the players] fresh, keeping them focused. Do I have to get on them still? Absolutely. Were there mistakes in practice? Absolutely. But I'm much more confident, and I think the guys are excited about where the team is headed."
Maryland's head man once again brought up the word "maturity," a trait his team lacked a little more than a week ago in losses at N.C. State and home against Pittsburgh.
But Turgeon said his team is starting to grow up, and it starts with the continued improvement of Allen, who just poured in 16 points and dished out seven dimes against Virginia Tech. Allen still isn't at the level he was prior to his preseason broken-foot injury, but he's making daily strides and building chemistry with his teammates, according to Turgeon.
"I've matured a lot. I respond better when Coach gets on me," Allen said. "I'm just really trying to run the team, get the team in the right spots and play great defense."
Said Mitchell, who was on the receiving end of at least one Allen assist: "He's making the right plays at the right time, and he's controlling the team on the floor. He's making the right passes and sharing the ball. It's a maturity thing."
That "maturity thing" applies to junior wing Nick Faust as well. Much maligned earlier this season, Faust, though not always on target, has shown more intensity as a defender and patience as a shooter. Moreover, he has not had a single turnover in UMD's last two games.
"I think Nick's playing perfectly fine. Is he playing as well as a he can play? Probably not. But mentally he's playing better and for the team he's better," Turgeon said. "I think the best is yet to come from Nick… He looks like a basketball player."
Mitchell has noticed the team gelling more as a unit. He said they're working together to create open shots, while also offering more active help defense than earlier during the season.
And indeed, Maryland's half-court sets have seen a noticeable uptick in ball screens and player movement. Defensively, Maryland held Va Tech to 37 percent shooting and forced 15 turnovers, while snagging 14 turnovers against Miami.
"The team is coming together, showing more confidence in what we do," said Mitchell, who is coming off an eight-point, six-rebound game. "We want to string together [several] wins in a row, win multiple games. We really want to get momentum, win a road game and carry it into the rest of the season and into the ACC Tournament."
That's some bold thinking when taking a look at UMD's upcoming schedule. Not only are they up against a North Carolina team that has won three straight Feb. 4, but then they have Florida State, a team that beat Maryland by 24 in Tallahassee, Fla.; followed by No. 20 Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.; and then No. 11 Duke in Durham, N.C. After a brief "reprieve" against Wake Forest, the Terps then take on No. 1 Syracuse at the sold out Comcast Center.
"We've talked about it … It's a great opportunity for us. At 5-4 [in the ACC], we've got a lot of great opportunities, and we've still got a shot," Turgeon said. "I'd rather be playing good teams than teams that aren't going to help us. It's an opportunity to get some quality wins."
For the Terps that would ideally begin at 8 p.m. against North Carolina. Though UNC has been somewhat disappointing this season, the Heels have beaten their last three foes by double digits.
Currently North Carolina ranks second in the conference at 76 points per game and are first in rebounding -- with many boards coming on the offensive glass where they generate plenty of second-chance buckets.
Point guard Marcus Paige, off-guard Leslie McDonald and forward James Michael McAdoo have been on a scoring binge, each dropping in double figures the last three outings. Paige is seventh in the ACC at 16.7 points per game, and has been UNC's engine this season.
Meanwhile, forward Kennedy Meeks has owned the glass, recording back-to-back 10-rebound efforts. Meeks also shoots 55.6 percent from the field, good enough for third in the conference.
"North Carolina is really going to challenge us defensively. They run their secondary break, they play fast -- 85 percent of what Coach [Roy] Williams does is what Coach [Dean] Smith taught him, and he's smart enough to keep doing it," said Turgeon, who has a well-documented relationship with UNC's head man. "But it really doesn't come down to their plays. It comes down to running back on defense, their [fast] breaks are special, and their motion. Not a lot of teams coach motion anymore, but they run a true five-man motion and [Williams has] been consistent with it over they years."
The good news for Maryland is UNC tends to go cold from the field. They are shooting 45.5 percent this season (seventh in ACC) and just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc (12th). North Carolina ranks dead last in free-throw shooting (62.6 percent) as well.
"We've seen [the motion offense]; we'll be ready," Allen said. "But they don't really have too many shooters, so we can really pack it in a little more. We'll play great team defense tomorrow; I know we will.
"We're going to play a full 40 minutes and not let them go on as long of runs. They're going to go on runs, but we're going to cut them short."
Defensively, Carolina has been erratic, giving up 78 points a night in eight conference outings (some of that has to do with UNC scoring so quickly in transition, increasing the number of possessions), but that number has dropped to 65 the last three games.
On top of that, the Heels are among the ACC's top three teams in steals (7.48 per game) and blocks (5.19 per game). Michael McAdoo, Paige and Nate Britt all average more than one steal per game, and forward Brice Johnson is 11th in the ACC at 1.24 blocks per night.
"We have to move the ball inside out, be patient moving it side to side, and just get in great position, while limiting our turnovers every time down the floor," Mitchell said. "We have to work it down low, and that will open up the outside game. But it comes down to just being smart -- not holding the ball, setting ball screens, and letting our guards go to work. [UNC's] bigs aren't great at guarding ball screens, so we have to move it, use the screens and look to get open shots."
If Maryland can really put it together on both ends and emerge with a victory in Chapel Hill, that would obviously give the current squad a signature win, which is all Turgeon and Co. are really concerned about.
But for diehard Terps fans, it'd be a nifty note in the history books as well. Maryland did defeat North Carolina the very first time these two schools met, so…
"To win the first one [in the UNC-Maryland series] and the last one," Turgeon said. "I think it would mean a lot to guys 60 years and older who have been following the program for a long time now. It would be great for Terps history."
One Last Time From Chapel Hill
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