Fueled by holiday road trip, Maryland men’s basketball is closer than ever

Guard Eric Ayala goes up for a contested layup during Maryland's 90-57 win over Saint Peter's at Xfinity Center on Dec. 4, 2020. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

There was a sweet melody emanating from the depths of Maryland men’s basketball’s locker room Monday night: a combination of clapping, chanting and yelling that rang along the walls. The Terps had just vanquished No. 6 Wisconsin, 70-64, securing their first win over a top-10 team in nearly five years.

And they just had to celebrate.

In the sprawl of chaos and excitement that followed, Maryland’s team spirit was on full display. It’s a quality this unit has struggled to foster in recent months. Social distancing guidelines have altered team-bonding activities, making it more difficult than ever to forge chemistry away from the court.

That’s what made Maryland’s Midwest road trip so valuable, said coach Mark Turgeon. Lengthy bus rides, Christmas Day festivities, NBA2K tournaments — for a fleeting moment, the Terps’ off-court interactions had a semblance of normalcy. Now, they are reaping the benefits.

“I was mad at the Big Ten for doing this to us, putting us out for Christmas Eve and keeping us on the road,” Turgeon said. “It’s actually probably the best thing that has happened to us. We really grew in the last five days.”

[Hot second half carries Maryland men’s basketball to 70-64 upset of No. 6 Wisconsin]

That growth typically takes place in the offseason. It’s a time of transition, offering veterans and newcomers an opportunity to get acclimated to the team culture on — and off — the court.

But this was an offseason unlike any other. In-person interactions among teammates were limited. Masks were required. Behavior that was previously commonplace — team meals, group gatherings, even pickup games — was discouraged.

“We didn’t have the summer, we didn’t really have the fall, we haven’t had a lot of team building,” Turgeon said. “We did a lot of team building over the last [couple of weeks].”
It started on the road, said guard Aaron Wiggins. Games and movies filled the hours during the team’s long bus trips.

And once Maryland made it to the hotel, that chemistry began to flourish. On Christmas Day, the Terps held a celebration where players and staff were flooded with pre-recorded messages of encouragement — and Christmas carols — from their families.

“Being on the road, traveling together, it just allows us to spend time with each other outside of basketball,” Wiggins said. “Getting to know each others’ personal lives, family … it’s a really big deal for me because chemistry-wise, it just brings us closer.”

[As Big Ten play ramps up, Maryland men’s basketball is looking for a closer]

Then, there were the NBA2K games. Armed with a PlayStation and a meeting room dotted with big screen monitors, the Terps made their own gaming hub, another outlet for them to get familiar with one another.

“It kinda takes our mind off of basketball,” guard Eric Ayala said. “We kinda just get to know each other, and I think that helps us in our chemistry on the court.”

Off the floor, Maryland’s togetherness blossomed. Following an offseason marked by uncertainty, the team finally had the tools to establish ties with one another.

That burgeoning team spirit was at the forefront of the Terps’ upset victory over the Badgers. There were a number of strong individual performances on Monday — Ayala had 17 points in the second half, Donta Scott was a force on both ends of the floor and Wiggins made some timely baskets.

But the energy and desire that buoyed Maryland’s display was felt across the squad. It was evident on the bench as Turgeon slammed his whiteboard in fury following a contentious foul call late in the game. Or when Scott slipped past two defenders to slam home and push the Terps up five with less than a minute left, Darryl Morsell mirroring his leap just a few feet away.

And it was evident in that celebration in the locker room, Turgeon’s squad clapping and chanting and yelling, the aftershock of a road trip like no other.

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