GREENSBORO, N.C. — Dez Wells had a special feeling when he stepped into Greensboro Coliseum on Friday night. It was time to prove the pundits wrong, he reasoned. It was time to show a national television audience that a young bunch is growing up at precisely the right time.
In that moment, little more than an hour before tipoff, the Terrapins men’s basketball team’s emotional leader made himself a promise: He’d do everything he could to boost an erratic group on the brink of an NIT appearance.
And that’s precisely what he did. Wells willed his team through the game’s crucial stretches for the second night in a row, helping the Terps take a sizable stride back into the NCAA tournament discussion. The Xavier transfer netted a career-high 30 points on 9-of-13 shooting to power the No. 7-seeded Terps past No. 2-seed Duke, 83-74, and secure a date with No. 3-seed North Carolina in Saturday’s ACC tournament semifinals.
“My team did what they had to do to get me the ball when I needed it,” Wells said moments after the Terps notched their second win over the Blue Devils in less than a month. “Nothing’s going to stop me. I’m going to go as hard as I can for my teammates.”
Wells’ aggressive play seemed to trickle down to the rest of coach Mark Turgeon’s youthful collection. The Terps made extra passes, attacked the rim at will and drew plenty of contact. They shot 51 percent from the field, connected on 8-of-20 3-pointers and hit 23-of-25 free throws.
But stifling defense ultimately handed the nation’s second-ranked team its second-largest defeat of the season. The Terps (22-11) cloaked Duke (27-5) all night, forcing players into ill-advised 3-pointers and causing off-kilter layups to clang off the rim. The Blue Devils hit just 4-of-25 attempts from beyond the arc, and fell to 18-1 with a healthy Ryan Kelly in the lineup.
“I thought our defense was phenomenal,” Turgeon said. “You have to be good and you have to be lucky to beat a great team. We were a little bit of both.”
The Terps seemed inspired from the game’s opening tipoff. With Wells leading the way, they jumped to an early 12-2 lead. Chants of “Let’s go Maryland” rained down on the well-rested Blue Devils as coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout less than four minutes into regulation.
After piecing together a 6-0 spurt, though, Duke continued to struggle containing Wells. The Raleigh native muscled his way to the basket with ease, helping the Terps build a 12-point lead with about eight minutes remaining in the half.
Desperate to build its resume for a No. 1 March Madness seed, the Blue Devils started to chip away at the deficit and entered halftime staring down an eight-point hole. They continued to claw back after intermission, getting within one point on a pair of made Mason Plumlee free throws about seven minutes into the half.
A couple of weeks ago, Turgeon later said, the Terps would’ve collapsed right there. They would’ve given into the mounting pressure of a raucous environment and a daunting opponent.
But something was different Friday night. Instead of delivering the typical letdown, the Terps went to work down low. They continued to crash the rim, and cobbled together an 18-6 run that gave them a 65-52 lead with 5:47 left.
The Blue Devils scrapped and kept things close, but ultimately failed to nab their first lead during the game’s critical stages. After getting within five points with 42 seconds remaining, the Terps hit enough free throws down the stretch to secure the convincing win.
“We’re playing as a team, so regardless of win or lose, we’re going to play together and we’re going to stay together,” Wells said. “It’s not about how you start a season that matters. It’s about how you finish it. Any team can make the tournament.”
With just two more wins standing between the Terps and their first March Madness berth in three years, they feel Sunday’s championship is well within grasp. Season-long lineup changes have made them comfortable against any opponent, they said. A 10-man rotation keeps them fresh.
So why not them? Why can’t they shock the pundits and carry home the ACC tournament title?
“It took us a little time to get there, but this is a brand new team, really,” point guard Pe’Shon Howard said. “Everyone’s grown up now. … We feel good right now.”
There were no Gatorade showers or season-defining speeches in the Terps’ locker room moments after securing the most significant victory of Turgeon’s young tenure. Instead, they gave each other short embraces and light taps on the back. Talk had already moved to staying poised and maintaining momentum.
“We have to expect to win,” Wells said. “When Duke beats somebody, they don’t celebrate as much. We feel like we’re one of the powerhouses of college basketball. We’re just trying to do whatever we can to win.”
And part of that process, several Terps said, depends on their emotional leader. They understand who got them to this point, and they’re not willing to deviate from the game plan. Not now. Not with so much still hanging in the balance.
“Dez is our heartbeat,” forward Charles Mitchell said. “Wherever he’s going, we’re going. We feed off his energy. … Seeing one of our teammates giving all his work and effort, you just want to go out there and fight with him like a soldier.”