BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When Terrapins men’s basketball guard Roddy Peters threaded a pass through Connecticut’s defense to forward Charles Mitchell with about 14:40 left in the second half of Friday’s season opener, Huskies guard Shabazz Napier slid in front of Mitchell to block his path to the basket.
Peters’ pass left the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Mitchell in a difficult situation. He was streaking toward the rim, and Napier was positioned to take a charge, which would have resulted in Mitchell’s third foul. But Mitchell spun past the smaller defender to avoid contact and finished the play with a right-handed layup as forward DeAndre Daniels slapped his arm. Then he knocked down the ensuing free throw.
Those were just three of Mitchell’s 10 second-half points Friday night, and though the Terps fell, 78-77, to the No. 18 Huskies at Barclays Center, the big-bodied sophomore did his part to help the team trim a 17-point deficit to one down the stretch.
For the game, Mitchell scored 12 points and snagged three rebounds off the bench.
“Charles plays hard,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “Charles competes, and he was able to stay out of foul trouble [in the second half]. Didn’t get the rebounds like he wanted but really made some nice plays for us.”
With his late-game performance, Mitchell made a case to unseat center Shaquille Cleare in the starting lineup. For much of the preseason, Turgeon was undecided as to whether Cleare or Mitchell would start in the post for the Terps, and both sophomores are likely to play significant minutes regardless of who begins the game.
Cleare didn’t do much to secure his spot on Friday, scoring four points on 1-of-4 shooting and grabbing one rebound in 19 minutes.
Mitchell was on the floor during most of the Terps’ second-half comeback, while Cleare watched from the bench.
“We need more out of Shaq,” Turgeon said. “There’s no doubt about it. We need more.”
Despite Turgeon’s disappointment in Cleare, the center played most of the first half because Mitchell picked up two personal fouls. Mitchell’s foul trouble reduced him to five minutes of court time in the first half and he scored just two points before the break.
That time spent on the bench, though, meant Mitchell had fresh legs after halftime. So Turgeon decided to put Mitchell on the floor to begin the second half, hoping the Atlanta native could provide more of an inside presence than Cleare.
But the third-year coach also warned Mitchell against fouling. With an already thin roster, Turgeon couldn’t leave Mitchell on the floor if there was a chance he’d foul out.
“It’s just mental focus,” Mitchell said. “I know my team is going to need me in tough stretches, I know I have to stay focused and know I have two fouls and have to be a smart player on the court.”
Mitchell responded by playing 15 minutes in the half and the only foul he committed came with 11 seconds remaining, when the Terps were trailing by one and needed to send the Huskies to the line to extend the game.
That’s a task Mitchell may have had trouble with in the past, but his improved conditioning this season helped him play clean defense. Turgeon mentioned that Mitchell lost a significant amount of weight in the months leading up to the season opener, and the sophomore was able to use his quickness to get into the appropriate defensive positions against the Huskies.
“He’s in much better shape,” guard Dez Wells said. “He works as hard as I’ve ever seen him work. It’s a different commitment to our team this year than it was last year.”
Mitchell’s conditioning and awareness both came into play during his productive second half at the Barclays Center and were especially evident on his spinning score off the feed from Peters.
Perhaps last season Mitchell wouldn’t have been light enough on his feet to twirl past Napier, but Friday, he was. He was also smart enough not to make contact with the Huskies senior, who may have drawn a charge.
After Mitchell’s layup dropped through the hoop, he screamed and smacked Wells’ hand for a high-five. The Terps were still down by 10 at that point, but Mitchell wasn’t intending to let up.
And he almost helped the Terps come all the way back.
“We never got down,” Mitchell said. “We just said, ‘Keep fighting. Game’s not over, we got another whole half to go. We got to come together as a team.’”