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Despite being stuck in NIT, Maryland fights to stay focused

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Sports,College,Kevin Dunleavy,Terps

Some teams make a half-hearted trip to the NIT, disappointed in failing to get to the NCAA. Maryland was guilty in 2006 when it lost in humbling fashion to Manhattan of the lowly Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

But Tuesday night in their NIT opener against another MAAC team, the Terrapins showed no lack of passion in an 86-70 victory over Niagara.

With a young rotation that includes three sophomores and four freshmen, Maryland (23-12) has reason to want to extend the season. A trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four would be a building block for the future and a nice reward for effort in the situation.

Thursday night at Comcast Center against Denver (22-9), Maryland will try to get a step closer by advancing to the quarterfinals.

Up Next
No. 3 Denver at No. 2 Maryland
When » Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where » Comcast Center
TV » ESPNU

"We just want to win the NIT. We're in it to win it," sophomore Dez Wells said. "We're not here just to bide time."

As Wells was speaking Tuesday night in the locker room, he had one eye on a television showing the final minute of an NIT game where one team appeared not to be in it to win it. Top-seeded Kentucky's embarrassing 59-57 loss came against No. ?8 Robert Morris of the Northeast Conference.

Maryland's desire on Tuesday night was reflected in the hustle statistics. The Terrapins out-rebounded the Purple Eagles 42-32 and limited them to 35.4 percent shooting.

Showing plenty of zeal was sophomore Nick Faust (15 points, 11 rebounds), who led a strong showing by the Maryland guards. Their 66 combined points was their best output this season as they played free and loose. It was a carryover from the ACC tournament, where the Terps showed little of the tentativeness that was characteristic of many road games this year.

"Coach [Mark Turgeon] does a good job of giving us a great vibe, allowing us to relax and play our game," Wells said. "If we make turnovers, we just get it back on defense. We're not really stressing about anything anymore. We're just going out and playing hard."

On Thursday night, Maryland hopes to draw a better crowd than the all-time Comcast Center low of 4,053 that came Tuesday. Getting fans out on a night when the NCAA tournament is on TV will not be easy. After Tuesday's game, however, Turgeon and a few of the players expressed appreciation for the passion of the diehards who somehow livened up an empty building.

Denver will likely be a tougher opponent. Since Pioneers coach Joe Scott brought the Princeton offense from his previous stop in 2007, Denver has made steady progress, improving from 11 wins. As the Pioneers have warmed to his intricate system, they've improved their record in conference games five times in six years, including this season with a step up to the WAC from the Sun Belt.

Leaders in Denver's balanced attack are junior Chris Udofia (12.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg), the Pioneers' tallest starter at 6-6, and a pair of 6-5 sophomores, Brett Olson (11.5 ppg) and Royce O'Neale (11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg).

It might be time for Turgeon to counter with his small lineup. With continued stellar play from his backcourt, he'll have plenty of options.

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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