JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When coach Mark Turgeon bounded into the locker room after Maryland men’s basketball’s 79-77 win over Belmont in the first round of the NCAA tournament, there appeared to be a weight off his shoulders.
He crouched, fists clenched, and yelled to get his players excited. He pointed to guard Andrew Terrell to move the Terps’ name to the Round of 32 on a large bracket mounted on an easel, hyping them up further.
Then, after securing his first victory in the Big Dance in nearly three years, Turgeon broke out dancing himself. Or at least, he attempted to.
“He didn’t look so good,” forward Bruno Fernando said, “but at least he tried to dance.”
Turgeon reserved the right to try just about anything after that win, even if the 54-year-old coach’s moves may be a tad dated for his players’ tastes. He’s been at the center of fan scrutiny, particularly for a lack of postseason results, and the criticism seemed to reach an apex after Maryland’s loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament last week.
While a two-point victory over the No. 11-seed won’t silence all the doubters, Thursday did allow the eighth-year coach to breathe a sigh of relief. And after helping his team punch its ticket to the next round, Fernando became the latest player to defend Turgeon as external pressure mounts.
“We had to get that one for coach Turgeon,” Fernando said. “He’s been through a lot of things for us, he puts a lot on himself, and [there’s] a lot of criticism and blame on him. For us to be able to get that win, to get that first one out of the way — for him — now we got to be able to focus on the next one.”
When the Terps were bounced early from last year’s Big Ten tournament, putting them on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, forward Kevin Huerter backed Turgeon, saying the coach wasn’t the one who missed the shots.
Following last week’s 69-61 loss to the Cornhuskers — Maryland’s fifth straight postseason defeat — guard Eric Ayala offered a similar defense.
The Terps, too, have felt the heat that comes from a former national championship-winning program going on a postseason losing skid. Terrell tweeted — and has since deleted — a message critical of the fan support. Guard Aaron Wiggins told The Washington Post postgame that fans constantly try to “bring us down.”
Fernando tunes it out. He said Turgeon does, too.
“He doesn’t care, nobody cares,” Fernando said. “At the end of the day, people can say whatever they want, we still got to step on the floor and play.”
Maryland’s first-half performance Thursday may have acted as kindling for Turgeon’s strongest detractors. Belmont led by as many as 12 and entered the locker room ahead by six.
But the Terps’ 14-0 run out of intermission tightened the scoreline, and a 19-point, 12-rebound display from forward Jalen Smith helped ignite a come-from-behind escape.
“Everybody had to grow up,” Smith said. “It’s no more freshmen. Everybody’s an upperclassman now.”
Smith’s night helped make up for guard Anthony Cowan’s 3-for-18 showing. Guard Darryl Morsell matched his career high with 18 points, and Fernando notched another double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds, stepping up amid their junior teammate’s poor showing.
Still, the Bruins had a chance to win it before a turnover in the final seconds sealed it for the Terps. When asked how he felt during such a tight matchup considering the criticism he’s faced, Turgeon casually brushed it off.
“You get second-guessed pretty good this time of year, so you want to do all the right things. But no, I’ll tell you what, I feel so lucky just to be part of a game like that,” Turgeon said. “Is my heart rate like I’m sleeping? No. But I just love it. I love it. It’s so much fun.”
It wouldn’t have been so fun had Maryland blown it, but Thursday’s narrow win ensures the season goes on for at least one more game, and perhaps holds off the strongest scrutiny for another round.
So, dance away, Turgeon.
“To get a win like that, for him specifically, he deserved it,” Fernando said. “He enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed it.”