Lucky? Or Just Plain Clutch?

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Whether it’s a last-second Dez Wells jumper, a clutch Melo Trimble step-back triple, or the team’s collective foul-shooting effort down the stretch, Maryland has developed a knack for closing out tight games. So much so that the Terps are 11-0 in games decided by eights points or less, including 6-0 in the conference.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Whether it’s a last-second Dez Wells jumper, a clutch Melo Trimble step-back triple, or the team’s collective foul-shooting effort down the stretch, Maryland has developed a knack for closing out tight games. So much so that the Terps are 11-0 in games decided by eights points or less, including 6-0 in the conference.

Which is a particularly noteworthy statistic heading into the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, where the teams are evenly matched and games figure to come down to the last few possessions.

Maryland will take on Indiana -- a team UMD split the season series with, including a two-point Terps victory thanks to Hoosiers’ point guard Yogi Ferrell’s missed open trey -- March 13 at 6:30 p.m. in Chicago’s United Center, and if they survive that affair, they’ll face the winner of the Ohio State/Michigan State bout the very next day -- a rough matchup regardless of foe.

Then, should Maryland make it all the way to the finals, the Terps might have a rematch against the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Wisconsin, a squad UMD beat by six only a couple weeks ago.

Indeed, the Terps’ margin of victory this season is just 6.6 points (seventh in the conference), suggesting a Big Ten finish much lower than where they ended up -- second.

“I’m used to winning by 20 points. This is my first year ever having to go through this [playing in so many close games],” said point guard Melo Trimble, the first freshman since Indiana’s Eric Gordon to make first-team All-Big Ten. “But it’s great. We dial in when it counts, and we really believe in Coach [Mark] Turgeon, and he believes in us... It’s a pride in just winning. We don’t accept losing. It’s about winning – that’s what it’s all about.”

That’s a rather convenient way to look at it, but the question to ponder here is: Is there a certain skill involved that helps teams pull out the close ones? Or is it merely luck -- a matter of, say, a friendly roll around the rim?

Is there an explanation why one of the nation’s top teams, Wisconsin, is just 1-2 in nail biters and steady Iowa (maybe not so steady after losing to Penn State March 12) is 1-4, while mercurial Illinois (pounded by Michigan March 12) is 3-1? Is there a reason Northwestern (lost to IU March 12) lost its first four close games, but finished with a 4-4 record in such situations? What about Indiana, which has been on a steep late-game slide after winning its initial three down-to-the-wire affairs?

And so on and so forth…

Turgeon, admittedly, sided with those in the “luck” category.

“I do believe the world is round (laughs),” he said. “And you have some seasons where you win those [close games] and some seasons where you lose them. I’d rather be 10-0 going into the NCAA tournament in close games than 5-5, but it goes in yearly cycles. People will say what they want, but I do feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys I know. Maybe that has something to do with it (laughs).”

Dez Wells respectfully disagreed with that line of thinking, which isn’t surprising considering the senior wing has been the king of clutch this season.

The first-team All-Big Ten performer sank a tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation against Michigan State, a game the Terps eventually won in double-overtime. A month later, Wells nailed the game-winning putback with 1.4 seconds left against Northwestern, lifting Maryland to a 68-67 victory.

Most recently, he knocked down an 18-foot jumper with a hand in his face to help UMD eke out a three-point win at Nebraska.

“Luck? That’s like throwing the ball 90 feet from one end of the floor into the other net. We’ve won close games because we’ve kept our poise and confidence,” Wells said. “A lot of games, you see guys miss from the free throw line. You can tell they’re nervous; their hands are shaking and stuff like that.

“I feel like in those close games, those guys that are prepared; ready; and have that confidence to step up and make free throws and take care of the ball down the stretch, those are the teams that deserve to win… There’s nothing lucky about us winning.”

Wells’ reference to free-throw shooting was probably a direct shot at Nebraska, a team that missed its opportunity to beat Maryland March 8 because it was just 62 percent from the line compared to 84 percent for the Terps. While Trimble and Wells have knocked down their share of crunch-time field goals, it’s the team's foul shooting that’s allowed it to escape several close bouts this season.

Maryland is second in the conference at 76 percent from the line, while Trimble personally ranks first at 87.6 percent. Wells connects on 80 percent of his free attempts (eighth in the Big Ten), and junior forward Jake Layman hits at a 76-percent rate (12th). Senior guard Richaud Pack ranks fourth on the team at 71 percent.

By comparison, probable NCAA tournament teams like Michigan State (62.7 percent), Ohio State (67 percent), Purdue (68 percent) and Indiana (71 percent) sit in the bottom half of the Big Ten in free-throw shooting. Top-seeded Wisconsin ranks just behind UMD at 75 percent, followed closely by Michigan and Iowa.

It certainly helps to have ice-in-the-veins Trimble at the stripe, but the Terps suggested the main reason they’re converting foul shots -- and late-game field goals for that matter -- is the relative no-pressure attitude the squad’s adopted.

It’s an attitude that’s permeated throughout the program, starting with the guy at the top.

“I think [Turgeon] has fun in close game situations, and that makes us comfortable too,” said the forward Layman, a third-team All-Big Ten performer. “If we have the ball, he’s very good at drawing up the right play. And I feel like on defense he knows what to do too. He’s very comfortable in those situations.”

Turgeon refused to accept credit for his team’s late-game prowess, but he acknowledged his players do seem to have a certain calmness about them. He said regardless of the environment or situation, the Terps just don’t get rattled.

Clear evidence: Maryland just defeated Nebraska and Rutgers on each of their Senior Nights, when the arenas were packed and the student-sections raucous. The Terps also knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., in double overtime and were game against a grizzled Wisconsin team many figured UMD couldn’t touch.

“We feel very comfortable in close games, and … there’s some we probably should have won by 10 or 12, but we still won the games and that’s what’s important,” Turgeon said. “We were at Nebraska, and they had made a little run on us in the second half and the building was really into it. And I said, ‘Guys this is so great, this is going to prepare us for the tournaments that lie ahead. We’re in an NCAA tournament [environment] right now, and the building is just turned on because we’re the higher seed, and everyone wants us to lose. Let’s just approach it right now like that the rest of this game.’ And our guys did. I said, ‘Let’s not panic, let’s just play, we’ve won these games all year. Let’s do it.’”

Now they’ll have to “do it” at the United Center, where Terps fans figure to be out-numbered by a significant margin. Regardless, the stakes have been raised, and, as the tournament’s No. 2 seed, Maryland is expected to make a significant run.

Naturally, Trimble said, there is added pressure to perform.

Just don’t expect the Terps to let it affect them.

“I think the only pressure we have is the one on yourself, and the only pressure you should bring yourself is to prepare to perform,” Wells said. “All the outside pressure should not matter; it should not be overwhelming…. You go out and do what you’ve been doing, and realize the sense of urgency needs to be heightened.”

Said Layman: “We feel very relaxed right now. We know we have a great opportunity coming up [March 13-15].”

Turgeon lauded his squad for keeping an even-keeled attitude throughout the four-month season, especially when UMD suffered through a 3-5 stretch in late January. Now, he expects the rested and refreshed Terps to continue that business-like approach in Chicago, with their sights set on claiming a trio of victories heading into the NCAA tournament.

“I think this team really believes they can go there and win three games. You don’t have many opportunities to win championships, and we have a chance to win one this weekend in the Big Ten tournament,” Turgeon said. “We’re not going to take the foot off the pedal.

“I think all the pressure is off. I think we’ve had a heck of a regular season; we’ve got a nice team. Let’s go have some fun.”

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