Terps Survive Again, Down Valpo

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Lucky or not, Maryland continues to figure out ways to close out games in crunch time. After defeating No. 13 seed Valparaiso, 65-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Nationwide Arena March 20, the Terps are now 12-1 in games decided by six points or less

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Lucky or not, Maryland continues to figure out ways to close out games in crunch time. After defeating No. 13 seed Valparaiso, 65-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Nationwide Arena March 20, the Terps are now 12-1 in games decided by six points or less, their lone loss coming in the Big Ten tournament semifinals against Michigan State.

“I guess it's just the nature of our team,” said senior wing Dez Wells, who finished with 14 points. “And when it gets down to like the grit part of the game, we just find ways to win. And that's how we are. That's how we've been throughout this year.”

Head coach Mark Turgeon said his team’s clutch performances come down to basketball’s basic principles: Defending (Valpo shot 36 percent from the field), rebounding (the Terps out-boarded the Crusaders 34-31) and making free throws late (UMD was 18 of 24 from the line).

Although Turgeon acknowledged the Terps didn’t play particularly well against a game Valpo squad that shot 45.5 percent from 3-point range, the head coach couldn’t say enough about UMD’s resiliency.

“We have a lot of confidence in those [tight] games. And we never panicked [March 20],” Turgeon said. “We let the guys know that Valpo was a good [team] and they're going to make shots. In March those things happen, but stay where we are, stay poised, and we did that.”

The Terps have been the beneficiary of a foe’s missed last-second shot, clutch jumpers of their own, untimely opponent miscues and the like. Against the Crusaders, though, they received a contribution from a rather unlikely source.

Walk-on point guard Varun Ram, who hadn’t seen a second of action all night, entered the game with 13 seconds remaining and the Terps ahead by three.

Valpo, setting up an in-bounds play underneath the UMD basket, attempted to find its No. 1 option, Alec Peters (18 points), outside the arc. But the Terps denied Peters the basketball, and the pass went to Crusader Keith Carter instead. Pouncing, the feisty Ram crowded Carter to the point where the latter couldn’t even get up a shot.

“I felt like I played way more than I had. It was like 30 seconds, but I felt like I played much longer,” Ram said. “It was a little nerve racking, but I just wanted to do my job. [Turgeon] was telling me, ‘Don’t foul, and just get a stop,’ and I was lucky enough to get it.” Point guard Melo Trimble (14 points, 10 rebounds), who didn’t have his best effort on “D” March 20, lauded Ram’s fast-firing fingers in the final 13 seconds, as well as his defensive prowess in general.

“Varun's a great defender. He always makes me better,” Trimble said. “When I'm on offense he presses the ball, and even on offense he does a great job on offense, makes me run around, makes me chase him, just makes me better, and he got in today and played defense, and that's what he does on me every day.”

Thanks to Ram, freshman wing Jared Nickens (14 points, 4-of-7 from range), Wells, Trimble and a several other contributors, Maryland averted an upset and will advance to play No. 5 seed West Virginia, which defeated Buffalo, March 22.

“On to the next round. I’ve seen [WVU] play like five games this year,” said senior Richaud Pack, “They pressure a lot, they run, they jump, and they sub a lot so they don’t get tired. They play with a lot of energy, so we have to be ready for their pressure. … But we’ll enjoy [the Valpo win] for a little bit. There’s a lot of upsets happening right now, so just taking care of business. Don’t take any opponent lightly, just take care of business.”

The Two Stalwarts Remained Stout

Speaking of “taking care of business,” both Terps freshman point guard Melo Trimble and senior wing Dez Wells did just that against the Crusaders. Neither had one of their “signature” all-around performances, but each did their part to help UMD eke out the victory.

Trimble put in a gritty, yeoman’s effort and ended up with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Trimble also connected on three of his six 3-point attempts after missing two of his first three.

One of his most critical plays, however, came on the defensive end. With the Terps clinging to a 51-49 lead, Trimble stuck his hand in the passing lane and came up with a steal, which led to a Damonte Dodd transition bucket.

“Melo has been pretty consistent all year with what he gives us each and every night,” Pack said. “He just continues to get it done. It’s been like that all year; he doesn’t play like a freshman.”

Wells, meanwhile, ended up with 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting, while chipping in three assists and three rebounds. He didn’t take over the game or hit an emotional last-second shot like during previous outings, and, in fact, he rode the bench for a long first-half stretch after picking up his second foul.

But the senior certainly didn’t disappoint March 20 – especially when it counted.

With the Terps clinging to a 62-61 lead, Wells knifed into traffic and snagged a missed Jake Layman 3. He then went right back up for a layup overtop a Valpo defender, drawing a foul in the process. The ensuing free throw made it a 65-61 game with 1:44 to go, setting the stage for UMD’s last-minute defensive stand.

“We've been battle tested throughout the whole year,” Wells said. “[Our] coaches and our poise and confidence regardless of what happens throughout the game -- and the adjustments we make in the game… We’ve done it all year.”

Nickens Dialed In; Wiley Chips In

If not for freshman Jared Nickens, Maryland might have found itself trailing Valparaiso by several buckets at halftime. Playing in his first NCAA tournament, Nickens showed no signs of butterflies, immediately connecting on his first 3-point attempt after entering the game with 13 minutes remaining. It was his first of four first-half triples, giving him a team-high 12 points.

Nickens drained his first three 3s from the left corner, taking advantage of a Crusaders defense that failed to rotate or find him in transition. The most significant of the trio, however, came at a critical juncture when Maryland wasn’t generating any offense, while Valpo’s marksmen caught fire. Trailing 21-15 with just over 8 minutes remaining, Nickens calmly stroked a 3 to cut into the deficit.

Then, after drilling his first three deep jumpers from the left corner, Nickens’ hit his final 3 of the half from the right elbow. That put the Teprs up 31-24 with 2:11 left and allowing UMD to go into the break with a four-point advantage.

To boot, Nickens connected on two crucial free throws in the second half to give him 14 points for the night.

“I was more excited than anything,” said Nickens, who denied being nervous. “I don’t force any shots, I just let the offense come to me. The way our offense is set up, I know my teammates will find me.”

Nickens wasn’t the only Terps sharpshooter who contributed to the victory. Fellow freshman Dion Wiley, much maligned of late, came off the bench to deliver what Turgeon called “the shot of the game.”

With Maryland struggling a bit midway through second half, trailing, Wiley stepped back and nailed his only shot of the game in 14 minutes of action, giving the Terps a 44-41 lead.

“Dion probably hit the biggest shot of the game when the score was tied, down 1 or whatever it was. We weren't playing very well. And he raised up and knocked it down,” Turgeon said. “And when those two are on the floor we're pretty hard to guard out there. So it's good to see. Good to see Jared. We had no chance against the zone until Jared came in. He hit four for us. And it was good. I think everybody helped us in their own way tonight.”

Dodd Converts Underneath

No, Terps sophomore Damonte Dodd didn’t play a flawless game, fumbling away a Dez Wells pass underneath and failing to move his feet defensively on a couple occasions. But Dodd produced eight points on 3-of-3 from the floor, all three of his looks underneath coming with little resistance from the Valpo defense.

How did he get open? In a couple different ways.

On his initial bucket, the Crusaders sent multiple defenders at Dez Wells, freeing up the big man on the block. And when Wells received a pass and began to drive, he found Dodd inside for an easy deuce.

Then, later in the affair, Dodd effectively came off screens set by fellow big man Michal Cekovsky. With just over 4:30 left in regulation, Cekovsky impeded a Crusaders’ defender’s path, and Dodd came open a foot from the basket. Dez Wells recognized it and hit him with a wrap-around pass, which Dodd converted for a layup, putting Maryland 58-52.

“Our offense runs through Dez, and we tried to get Dez open,” Dodd said. “[Valpo] tried to double-team Dez, and it opened things up for me for some easy baskets. But getting easy buckets always boosts my confidence, and it helps boost my confidence on defense too.”

Dodd got the job done defensively too, recording four big blocks. He, along with Cekovsky, forced Valpo to settle for jump shots instead of driving in for higher-percentage looks.

Crusaders Deadly From Deep; Terps Perimeter “D” Sags

Valparaiso shot just 35.7 percent from the floor, but they were a scintillating 44 percent from range, including 47 percent in the first half. Alec Peters -- after a slow start in which Jake Layman, Melo Trimble and Evan Smotryvz held their own defensively -- started to find his rhythm, nailing three of his five triples.

Granted, a couple of Peters’ – and his teammates’ for that matter – jumpers were undefendable or just plain lucky. Darien Walker banked in a 3, for example, while Peters drilled one trey overtop an outstretched Layman hand and a second with Trimble in his face.

But there were plenty of occasions when the Terps failed to rotate defensively, or didn’t hedge hard enough on screens. Instead of pressuring the ball as soon as Valpo moved past half-court, UMD tended to sag back, as if to stop a dribble drive. The Crusaders, with their long, length backcourt, took advantage, rotating the ball around the perimeter and finding solid looks from range.

Early in the second half, Victor Nickerson drilled a 3 when Richaud Pack failed to play tight enough defense beyond the arc. Soon thereafter, Jared Nickens got caught on the baseline instead of covering Peters at the elbow, the latter making the freshman pay with a “gimme” trey to put Valpo up 41-40.

The Crusaders then ended up tying the game at 49 thanks to more Maryland breakdowns. Peters drained a triple when the Terps didn’t find him in transition, followed by a wide-open Nickerson 3 when a UMD defender did not close.

After the game, however, the Terps didn’t sound too concerned with their perimeter defense.

“[Valpo] hit a lot of contested 3s; that’s college basketball,” Pack said. “That’s what you want, guys taking contested 3s, especially when guys who usually don’t make 3s start making them… I think we did our job for the most part.”

Layman’s Struggles Continue

Jake Layman has pulled a disappearing act late during his junior campaign, and the trend continued March 20 against Valparaiso. The team’s third-leading scorer attempted just one field-goal attempt all night (he missed) and ended up with four point and five rebounds, fouling out in the process.

Layman lacked aggression on the offensive end, playing timidly as if he’d lost his confidence. There were several times down the floor where he had an open look, but quickly passed it up, moving the ball back to Trimble up top. And when Layman did attempt to drive late during the game, he was hit with a charge for his fifth foul, an apropos ending to his quiet night.

More concerning than his shooting woes was Layman’s defense, however. After starting out well guarding Alec Peters, Layman was caught flat-footed, failing to react to drives or hedge hard enough on shooters. The Crusaders routinely went after him when in their half-court offense, and it worked to the tune of a 44 percent 3-point conversion rate.

Layman was unavailable for comment following the game.

More Notes:

-- Maryland out-rebounded Valparaiso, 34-31, a notable stat considering the Crusaders were plus-seven in rebounding margin.

? -- The Terps didn’t move the ball particularly well, but they still shot 47.5 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range. ?

? -- The Terps had just 11 turnovers to Valpo’s nine.

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