COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Certain that another halftime tirade would fall on deaf ears, Mark Turgeon went into the locker room on Wednesday with a simple question for his players, who trailed Notre Dame by nine after managing only 25 first half points.
"What did I do to you?" he asked.
Turgeon clarified his implication. In the midst of season spiraling in the wrong direction, perhaps the third year coach had somehow disabled his team's ability to enjoy playing basketball. They had just been blown out in consecutive games and for the first 20 minutes against the Irish, played terrified in what essentially was a must-win.
"I didn't really know what to say," Turgeon said afterwards. "But I walked in there and said, 'I don't know what I've done to you guys, but we're not playing the way we're capable of, so we're just going to have fun. If you do that and we have fun and we play the way we are capable, we can win this game."
With the weight of the world off their shoulders, the Terrapins morphed into a second half juggernaut; outscoring the Irish by 17 and notching a 74-66 win to move to 3-2 in their last season in the ACC. They locked down Notre Dame shooters on defense and allowed a crazed Comcast Center crowd to fuel an offense that hung 49 on the Irish after the half.
Their transformation didn't take long to notice, as Dez Wells finished a Seth Allen alley-oop with a thunderous dunk that cut the lead to five early in the second half. Wells dropped to his feet and pumped his chest while Allen peered at the 13,878 in attendance, all donned in white, and urged them to their feet.
"I had to get the crowd into it," Allen said. "Coach Turgeon was really on me to get the crowd into it because they help us tremendously. They create that energy."
The slam gave Wells the first of 17 second half points. After an 0-for-6 performance early on, Turgeon stressed to his star slasher the same message he had already delivered to the entire team. Wells took over after halftime, making 3 of 4 shots and draining all 11 free throw attempts. He saw an Irish defense that was soft in the middle and attacked it.
"It all starts with me," Wells said. "Coach pulled me to the side and said, 'Dez you're taking it a little too seriously. It's just a game. Go out there and have fun.'"
"I just looked right at him," Turgeon said. "I said, 'Dez you have got to play better. You have to. Relax, have fun and play better.' And he did. He became a big boy. He bullied them a couple times."
Starting for the first time in his fifth game back, Allen brilliantly played the role of sidekick on Wednesday night. He missed eight of 13 shots, but his fingerprints were all over the plays that swung the momentum in Maryland's favor. After six straight points from Charles Mitchell helped to tie it, Allen connected on a long three-pointer to give his team the lead. Irish coach Mike Brey, who had just received a technical foul, motioned for a timeout as Allen ran towards his bench holding three fingers in the air. A play later, Allen assisted on another oop, this one to Jake Layman, and the Terps were on their way to redemption.
"That really gets the crowd into it," Allen said. "Plays like that gets the gym rocking and gets Comcast up and live and off their feet. It helps us. When you're tired and the crowd is up screaming it gives you that extra step."
"He's definitely the x-factor," said Turgeon, who was downright jovial afterwards, joking with reporters and charismatically controlling the flow of questions. "Seth was good tonight. His foot was better against Florida State. It didn't hurt."
Along with the play of Allen and Wells, Mitchell's energy enabled an 8-0 Maryland run to start the second half. The Irish scored their fourth point of the second half at the 10:25 mark. Notre Dame shot 48 percent but uncharacteristically turned the ball over 17 times and allowed Maryland to gobble up 20 offensive boards, six coming from Mitchell and five from Evan Smotrycz.
Quick to settle for deep looks, the Terps shot 3-for-16 from three in the first half and couldn't do much to stop a methodical Irish offense led by Pat Connaughton (19 point, 6 rebounds). Inspired by Wells, Maryland took it to Notre Dame after halftime and ended up converting 17 of 20 free throws.
The strategical tweak was a coup for a team coming off two games ugly from start to finish. But the biggest adjustment wasn't on the chalkboard, and instead came from Turgeon, who was just eager to see his guys smile again.
"Coming off two big losses in embarrassing fashion, this is where you really find out what kind of team you have," Wells said.
"We didn't give up. That is what Coach Turgeon wants to see from us. Fight."