JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It didn’t take much to draw the ire of referee Earl Walton, but when he T’d up coach Mark Turgeon four minutes into the second half, it changed the game.
As Turgeon bickered at the refs and talked to his assistants, guard Darryl Morsell pulled the Maryland men’s basketball team around him, the sophomore acting as a leader on a team filled with underclassmen.
“Coach Turgeon’s fighting for us,” he said. “We’ve gotta go fight for him.”
Once Turgeon returned to the huddle, the eighth-year coach changed his defense, feeling the urgency of preventing LSU’s 15-point lead from growing any larger. The switch to zone muffled what had been a quick-fire offense to that point, and Turgeon’s technical ignited a Maryland run that brought it to the brink of the Sweet 16.
“We went zone after the tech, and that was a big part of our success,” Morsell said. “We got some stops. We took the lead by three points. But it’s just tough they found a way to win.”
Because the Tigers shot just 31 percent from beyond the arc this season, Turgeon knew he would utilize a zone at some point. The switch helped the Terps guard forward Naz Reid, an athletic big who can threaten from outside. After scoring eight points on 3-for-6 shooting in the first half, he put up five points on eight shots in the second, with Terps forwards Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith pestering down low in a 3-2 zone.
When Reid backed down Morsell with under three minutes remaining, Fernando shifted over and stonewalled him, forcing a turnover. On the next possession, Smith rejected the 6-foot-10 freshman.
By that time, Maryland had secured a one-point edge, holding LSU to 6-for-29 shooting in the final 16 minutes of the game with a zone scheme it had run on just 1.6 percent of possessions this year, according to Synergy Basketball. But after whittling down and eventually overcoming the 15-point deficit, the Terps couldn’t push their advantage beyond one score, allowing the Tigers to steal the win in the final seconds.
“We were able to make enough shots, but they gave us problems with [the zone],” guard Skylar Mays said. “That length really bothered us. Maybe if they had started it earlier, it would’ve been a different game. Glad they didn’t.”
Against Minnesota in January, Maryland entered the half trailing by six points. A switch to a zone defense helped hold the Golden Gophers to just 27 points in the final 20 minutes, and the Terps ran away with an 82-67 victory in Minneapolis.
Maryland outscored LSU 38-31 in the final 20 minutes, with the zone defense and a kickstart from Turgeon’s technical to thank. And against a team that makes its living in the paint, the strategy of forcing long-range efforts worked.
“I would have loved to have done it earlier,” Turgeon said. “Our offense just wasn’t good enough.”
The technical seemed to flip a switch for Maryland on offense. The Terps embarked on a 13-3 run to get within five and went on to level the scoreline, before the back-and-forth finish fell LSU’s way.
“He was fighting for us,” guard Eric Ayala said. “We just wanted to fight. That was the message: Just keep fighting.”
LSU shot 3-for-14 from distance in the second half, but two late triples from Mays — including one with 40 seconds remaining to set up a 2-for-1 chance that proved the difference — were a gut punch after a second-half surge.
Once Waters looped home the winner and Ayala’s three-quarters-court heave misfired, there were Terps strewn across the floor at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in varying degrees of dismay.
But for a team that hardly played like the fourth-youngest group in the country, Saturday was another reminder — however painful — of the resiliency of Turgeon’s squad, and the potential it has going forward, should key pieces remain.
“Just being so close to reaching the Sweet 16 and going home, it’s motivation for the summer,” Morsell said. “The young guys, they came in this year and gave it everything they got. It’s tough right now for us. We fought, though, and I’m proud.”