Entering Wednesday night, it was a little difficult to ascribe “must-win” status to the Terrapins men’s basketball team’s game against Notre Dame.
Sure, the Terps were coming off back-to-back road shellackings against Pittsburgh and Florida State, but they were still 2-2 in a young conference season. Just less then two months are left in the season, and the Terps still have 13 more games against ACC foes to decide their fate.
A defeat wouldn’t have meant the end of the world, and a competitive outing probably could have placated some doubts about the team’s ability.
But after Wednesday night’s 74-66 victory over the Fighting Irish — in which the Terps overcame a 12-point first-half deficit and a dreadful shooting effort early — coach Mark Turgeon, center Shaquille Cleare and guard Nick Faust admitted they had big things on their minds against Notre Dame.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Turgeon said. “We had to win this game, and I think our guys felt it.”
“We had to win this game,” Cleare said. “We had to. We were down at halftime. We just weren’t going to give up. We’re at home. Our fans are at our back. We just had to play hard. We just came out and played. That’s all we did.”
“It kind of was a must-win game for us, and definitely pressure was on us, and we were playing on eggshells the first half, so the second half we loosened up and got the W,” Faust said.
In hindsight, a must-win game can be just a simple blip on the radar. Maybe Wednesday night was just a false start and the Terps from last week return against N.C. State in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday. A three-game losing streak later in the season can undo any positives from now, or maybe a different win ignites the team to a postseason run instead.
Fact is, no declaration can made on Wednesday night’s importance until the end of the season. In the moment, it’s the Terps biggest win of the season, but that’s a delicate status.
Either way, the Terps have set themselves up nicely for a short run through the rest of January and into February. The Terps’ next four games are at N.C. State, at home against Pitt and Miami and at Virginia Tech. Excluding the No. 22 Panthers — who have emerged as possibly the second-best team in the ACC behind No. 2 Syracuse — the Wolfpack, Hurricanes and Hokies have all been uneven. In an increasingly muddled ACC, the Terps can gain some separation entering a Feb. 4 matchup against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.
And the signs from Wednesday night point toward that happening.
Turgeon said he told the team to have more fun in the second half, and it was easily visible. At one point, guards Seth Allen and Dez Wells flashed wide smiles while Notre Dame brought the ball down the court.
“At halftime, coach really spoke to us and just told us we need to just play loose and go out there and have fun,” Faust said. “That was a big part of why we got ahead in the second half.”
In the first half, the Terps were tense, too worried about making mistakes and not executing perfectly on either end. The opening 20 minutes were an extension of the second half at Pitt and the game at Florida State when they simply weren’t competitive and let the game get away from them.
But unlike the Panthers and Seminoles, the Fighting Irish couldn’t pull away, and the Terps were within striking distance trailing by only nine points despite shooting 3-of-16 from three-point range.
So in a second half in which they outscored Notre Dame by 17 points, the Terps resembled the team many expected to see when the season started, the team that harbored postseason aspirations entering Turgeon’s third year.
“We’re just tired of being down at halftime and losing by 20 or 30 points,” Cleare said. “We’re at home, man. We’re in front of our fans. We just want to give them a good show, show them that we do have some fight in us and we’re a good basketball club and we will continue to get better.”
And thanks to a combination of defense and timely shooting — like Faust’s corner 3-pointer to put the Terps up by eight with 1:16 remaining — the Terps put their recent struggles behind them.
It’s hard to tell where Wednesday night’s win will rank at the end of the season, and it’s hard to assess the type of impact it will have on the Terps’ future. All of the positives built up over the final 20 minutes of the win can be undone Monday night at the Wolfpack.
Or it could kickstart a hot streak in ACC play. Only time will tell.