It was no secret that depth-challenged Maryland was feeling depleted in recent days, dropping four of its previous five games and clearly showing signs of frustration and wear. It was as if the regular season had been extended about three weeks too long.
But then came the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and Maryland's young team found itself reinvigorated by the sights and sounds and flavor of the event — and by a chance to add a postscript to a difficult season.
Maryland responded to the postseason with its most energetic and complete game of the season on Thursday, piling up assists and using fast breaks effectively in an 82-60 victory over Wake Forest at Philips Arena in the tournament opener.
The eighth-seeded Terps — led by Terrell Stoglin (25 points) and Nick Faust (career-high 19 points) — now move into the quarterfinals against top-seeded North Carolina on Friday at noon. The Tar Heels, who earned a first-round bye, beat Maryland by nine and 24 points, respectively, during the regular season. "We've got to have a whole new attitude like it's a new season," said Maryland center Berend Weijs, who — like his frontcourt teammates — got into foul trouble in the teams' last meeting trying to guard 6-11 John Henson and 7-footer Tyler Zeller. Zeller scored 30 points and converted 20 of 23 free throws.
Maryland will enter the North Carolina game coming off its largest victory margin of the season. It was also Maryland's most lopsided ACC tournament victory since a 2002 game against Florida State.
The Wake Forest game came at a time when the Terps and coach Mark Turgeon were desperate to have something to celebrate again.
"We were really disappointed at the way we ended the [regular] season, so this is huge," Turgeon said. "This has been a great day — a great day — for Maryland basketball. I can't talk about everything, but it's been a great day for us."
Turgeon was referring not only to the victory but to the recruitment of power forward Charles Mitchell, who tweeted that he would be in "a Maryland uniform next year."
Maryland (17-14) seemed to reinvent itself against the Demon Deacons (13-18). Most of Maryland's big plays resulted from passes, and the Terps recorded 18 assists — their high this season in a conference game.
Stoglin, the ACC's leading scorer, was particularly efficient, shooting 8-for-14 to go with seven rebounds and four assists. "Coach was talking to me on the plane about being a better teammate," Stoglin said. "I just thank God I showed it today — showing the passing, the rebounding. I'm just going to continue to do that and try to get better."
Stoglin's 25 points were the most by a Terp in the ACC tournament since John Gilchrist's 30 points in 2004. Faust's 19 were the most for a Maryland freshman in the tournament since Laron Profit scored 19 against Duke in 1996.
Interviewed in Maryland's locker room, Stoglin reiterated that he is likely to return for his junior season rather than enter the NBA draft. "It's just not a final decision. Right now, I'm looking to come back next year. We're going to wait until the end of the year," he said.
It was the first ACC tournament for freshmen Faust (City) and center Alex Len, who both started and played well. Len started for only the second time in more than a month.
"We talked about just dialing in and also having fun," Turgeon said.
Said Faust: "It's what you come to Maryland for — the big stage, the big plays, the big games. When I was little I definitely watched these [tournaments]."
Maryland has now advanced to at least the second day in each of the past four ACC tournaments. Last year, Maryland beat North Carolina State in the opening round. The year before, the Terps earned a first-round bye. The last time the Terps were a No. 8 seed was 2005, when they lost to Clemson in the first round.
Maryland led just 36-31 at the half. But a scoring burst keyed by Stoglin and Faust soon pushed the advantage over 20 points.
A Stoglin 3-pointer pushed the lead to 10 and his three free throws made it 46-33. Moments later, another Stoglin 3 upped the margin to 49-35.
Faust then started a highlight play, passing from beyond the arc in to Len, who dunked and was fouled. Faust stopped and shouted in celebration near midcourt, pumping his arms as Len's free throw gave Maryland a 52-35 lead.
The Terps "did a good job of getting the ball into the middle of the zone," said C.J. Harris, Wake Forest's junior guard.
The game was enjoyed by a sizable contingent of red-clad Maryland fans sitting behind one of the baselines.
Maryland had won an earlier meeting with Wake Forest, 70-64, at Comcast Center by holding Harris to 10 points. Harris entered Thursday's game fourth in the ACC in scoring (16.8 points per game). Harris had 13 points in Thursday's first half but just one point in the second half.
Turgeon has said the Terps like to run whenever they can. They had 18 fast break points to Wake Forest's seven. "We run on misses and we got stops — long rebounds — and we were able to get some easy ones," Turgeon said.
As weary as Maryland was at the end of the regular season, Wake Forest — which also lacks depth — appeared spent as well. The Deacons played again Thursday without suspended big man Ty Walker, who blocked eight shots in the teams' first meeting.
"They didn't have a lot of subs," Turgeon said. "I was trying to be a little bit deeper than them in the first half and try to wear their guys down."