COLLEGE PARK, MD.--When his school really needed something to cheer for, junior forward James Padgett delivered for the University of Maryland.
Slammed by critics for days on end amid controversies in the football program and scheduling conflicts between Maryland and Georgetown, Maryland athletics needed a win. Badly. Padgett went out and got it.
The defining play of Maryland's 75-70 win over Miami was a microcosm of Padgett's season. Using his hustle, positioning and perseverance, Padgett grabbed an offensive rebound off an Ashton Pankey miss with under a minute to play and his team down 66-64. It was a play Padgett has made all season.
Offensive rebounding often comes down to grit and angles, and Padgett worked himself into the right spot. When he elevated and went back up for the putback, the shot dropped and the game was tied. The Comcast Center crowd was hysterical.
"We feel it, we feel it shaking on the floor," sophomore guard Terrell Stoglin said of the frenzied crowd after Padgett tied the game. One task remained for Padgett though: stepping to the free throw line and giving Maryland the lead.
Maryland had not led in a tight game against Miami in almost 12 minutes, and Padgett's free throw would give the cardiac Terps the chance for the lead.
"This is a confidence builder for our team," senior forward Sean Mosley said. "Padge has been coming along slowly and surely. He stepped up and got that and-one for us and made that free throw. It was just a huge momentum change for us."
In his first two years at Maryland, Padgett was an unreliable player and a poor free throw shooter. Even earlier this year, Padgett was a questionable shooter from the charity stripe. But in the biggest spot of the season, he stepped to the line, made the shot, and gave the Terps what Coach Mark Turgeon called Maryland's biggest win of the year.
Scoring 16 points, Padgett provided a secondary scoring punch to the leading scorer Stoglin. Padgett also chipped in with six rebounds, none more important than the one off the Pankey miss.
"Padgett played great tonight. That three point play was probably the reason we won," Stoglin said.
Winning can cure everything. Speaking to the media after the win, Turgeon called it a "hugger." A "hugger" is the kind of game where all the players and coaches can hug one another after the game to celebrate a big win against a good opponent, he explained.
"It's just a great win for us," Turgeon said. "I've been all over my post guys. I thought James played with great toughness and he got it going early."
Maryland has struggled at times this year, perhaps none more so than in last Saturday's 27-point loss to Virginia. But to respond with a win over an opponent with real NCAA tournament aspirations shows that the team plays hard.
"They got the offensive rebound and biggest basket of the game; they scored and got fouled when we were up by two," Miami Coach Jim Larranaga said after the game.
No one will ever confuse Padgett's offensive game with Kevin McHale's. His footwork in the post often seems hyper, too much movement in too little space. But it works, and it works because Padgett stays after it.
"James is not a good foul shooter, and he made himself a really good foul shooter," Turgeon said. "[That's] because he works at it every single day."
Free throw shooting really comes down to practice. For Padgett, who shot 80 percent from the line against Miami, the numbers show his hard work. On his days off, Padgett said he tries to shoot 200 free throws, sometimes as many as 300.
"It was big for me," Padgett said. "I was really focused on making the free throw. From the past, I haven't been making as many good free throws."
In addition to his free throws, Padgett continues to develop his post game, focused on his off hand shooting. Few people think back to Padgett's recruitment, but at the time many considered the Brooklyn big man part of a package deal. Padgett played his high school ball with Lance Stephenson, and before the whirlwinds of recruiting got too strong, Stephenson was a prime Maryland target.
Stephenson lasted one year in college. Though excelling now in his junior year, Padgett figures to be a four year player. His game is not flashy, but he does the grunt work that wins games. Asked after the game what he thought of all the accolades his old-fashioned three-point play received, Padgett returned to the humble player that shoots 200 free throws on his days off.
"We all won the game together. It's good to get compliments, everyone likes compliments, but I think it was more of a team win," Padgett said. "It's a great feeling. We felt liked we owed them one."
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