COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- With Maryland finally extending its lead to double-digits seven minutes into the second half Nov. 30 against the Virginia Military Institute, Terps freshman center Michal Cekovsky stepped in front of a driving Q.J. Peterson and denied the dynamic shooting guard at the rim. The ball caromed right to UMD freshman wing Jared Nickens, who immediately started Maryland’s transition offense, ending with an easy Richaud Pack layup that extended the Terps’ advantage to a cool dozen.
It was a statement play, to say the least, serving as a microcosm for the Terps’ second-half defense in a 95-77 victory over VMI. During that latter frame, Maryland held the sharpshooting Keydets, who have routinely ranked among the highest-scoring teams in college basketball the last few years (and were 10th coming into the Nov. 30 affair at 88.2 points a night), to 32 points and just 33-percent shooting (13 of 39) and 20-percent from 3-point range (4 of 20).
“We just keep talking. We might not be the best defensive team in the country, but we’re pretty good,” Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said of a Maryland squad that entered the VMI bout ranked ninth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense at 34.2 percent. “We were going to win this game on defense; we weren’t going to win it with out offense. Defending and rebounding is what we keep talking about.”
If it isn’t transition defense, it’s boxing out. If it isn’t boxing out, it’s perimeter defense. If it isn’t perimeter defense, it’s zone defense. If it isn’t zone defense, it it’s rebounding. And so and so forth.
Statistics aside, Turgeon has, at his worst, lamented his team’s defensive efforts. At his best, he’s urged the Terps to put together a more complete effort, from tip to final buzzer.
And, really, Maryland has yet to compile a full 40 minutes of lockdown “D.” But Turgeon was certainly proud of how the Terps responded Nov. 30 after a lackluster first half, especially considering the circumstances.
The opponent notwithstanding, the Terps figured to have some trouble since the VMI game was their fourth in a week. After a pair of wins in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Mo., Nov. 24-25, Maryland followed up with a semi-letdown effort in a victory over Monmouth Nov. 28. UMD then had one day to reclaim its mojo before taking on the frenetic Keydets.
On top of that, the Terps are still adjusting to life without Dez Wells, who is out for another three-plus weeks with a fractured wrist suffered Nov. 25 against Iowa State.
“It’s been an adjustment, offensively and defensively,” Pack said of not having the senior leader Wells on the court. “He’s a presence on both ends of the floor with the energy he brings, so it’s been an adjustment not having him out there, and we’ve had to have other guys step up.”
UMD had plenty of guys step up offensively Nov. 30, but the Terps didn’t react well to VMI’s shock-to-your-system, up-and-down style, predicated on transition, transition and more transition. The Keydets slash, they drive and they hoist up more 3s than all but nine other Division I teams.
In the first half Nov. 30, VMI shot 46 percent from the field (17 of 37) and 36.4 percent from deep (8 of 22) as the Keydets kept the Terps within striking distance, trailing by just four at the half, 49-45. In fact, VMI took a 42-39 lead late during the first 20 minutes and looked primed to run right out of the Xfinity Center -- with an upset in toe.
“We knew what VMI was going to do, because Coach Turgeon already had film on them and how they played, so we felt ready,” said freshman guard Dion Wiley, who had 19 points Nov. 30. “But when you’re in the game, they really run and gun, and we had to adjust and settle down.”
The aforementioned Peterson, who came in averaging 20.2 points a night, had 12 on 4-of-9 shooting, while backcourt mate Craig Hinton dropped in 15, including 4-of-4 from downtown.
“At the beginning of the game we knew No. 22 [Peterson] was their leading scorer and he scored 20 points [ a game],” freshman point guard Melo Trimble said. “But we struggled the first half and we weren’t really paying attention to the shooters as much as we should have…. At halftime we really didn’t get yelled out, but we came out with confidence and decided to lock up and stretch the ‘D’ out. …
“We did better on the ball-screen defense by hedging out. [The Keydets] were attacking the ball screen and pitching back to the shooter, but in the second half we made one full switch… and we got stops.”
Turgeon concurred with Trimble’s assessment, saying the Terps emphasized said ball-screen defense. But from a media and fan perspective, it looked like a wholesale change -- in both attitude and scheme.
“We played smarter. We made one adjustment with our ball-screen defense and that was it. Our guys were just dialed in and played a little bit better because of it,” Turgeon said. “I thought we were more active, had a few more deflections. … The guys know how to play defense; they just decided to do it.”
Evidently the Terps didn’t really need to be told. Trimble said Turgeon didn’t even raise his voice in the halftime locker room, while Pack mentioned how the players urged each other to pick up their games before the headman even spoke to them.
“We said it in the locker room before [Turgeon] even came in – let’s lock down defensively,” said Pack, who dropped 22 points on 10-of-14 shooting Nov. 30. “And we just stressed getting back in transition, because typically in transition it comes off misses or turnovers, but with VMI it’s off makes too, so we had to get back.
“And we got back [in transition] better for those few minutes. We stepped the pace up on defense; we were more aggressive on defense, containing ball control. And before you know it, we were up 14. We were locking in.”
Pack, in particular, drew his share of postgame praise. Although he earned plenty of accolades for his team-high 22 points, he also came up with a steal that led to a bucket and helped hold Peterson to just six second-half points. Peterson was 3-of-8 and 0-of-3 from 3-point range in the latter 20 minutes.
“I thought [Pack’s offense] carried over to his defense. No. 22 [Peterson] is a heck of a player and I thought we did a great job on him,” Turgeon said. “He ended up with 18 [points] on 17 shots. [Pack] did a nice job on him.”
Pack, along with Nickens, Wiley and Trimble, helped hold Hinton in-check during the final 20 minutes as well. Hinton scored 15 points in 10 minutes in the first half, but managed just eight points in 15 minutes in the second half.
Much of that was thanks to Nickens, who actively face-guarded Hinton in the latter frame.
“[Nickens] is getting better. He’s getting back quicker in transition,” Pack said of the freshman. “He’s pretty good once he’s settled in…it’s getting back that’s sometimes a problem, but in the second half he got back and found his man.”
Even Wiley, who has been criticized for his defense at times this year, received some well-earned compliments. Turgeon said that while the freshman guard lapsed a bit early on, he ramped up the defensive intensity in the second half.
“I think I’m getting better,” Wiley said. “I’m moving quicker off the ball, playing better on-ball defense. I work on defense every day. I was guarding Dez [Wells] in practice [before his injury], so that’s been a big challenge for me, and it’s making me better.”
Which brings us back to Cekovsky, the 7-foot center who continues to develop a different part of his game seemingly every time he takes the floor. On Nov. 30, he scored 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting and dropped in a nifty jump hook that Turgeon said he hadn’t even shown in practice before.
But, as it’s been during several earlier outings, it was Cekovsky’s length that paid major dividends.
The Keydets ended up scoring 30 paint points -- as opposed to 66 for the Terps -- and were challenged pretty much every time they attempted to battle among the trees. Maryland ended up recording a season-high 10 blocks, three each courtesy of Damonte Dodd and Cekovsky.
“If we get beat, we know we have rim protectors,” Wiley said. “Coach Turgeon always tells us, ‘Don’t be scared to be aggressive, because you have some really good guys behind you that can stop shots.’”
The Slovakian big man recorded all three of his rejections in the second half, spurring a Terps transition offense that racked up nine fast-break points in the final frame.
“Ceko I thought had his best game for us since he’s been here… Ceko’s confident,” Turgeon said. “I just thought his ball-screen defense was very confident, his understanding of the defense was very confident, and his timing and shot-blocking were at another level.”
UMD will get a true gauge of how far Cekovsky and the defense can take them Dec. 3, however. That’s when Virginia comes to town, the Cavaliers boasting the No. 3 field-goal percentage defense in the country.
“We want to be known by our defense and rebounding,” Wiley said. “That’s what we want our identity to be. That’s something we take pride in.”
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