Maryland men’s basketball had an opportunity to make a statement. To secure back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time this season. To win on the road at Penn State for the first time since February 2015. To climb to 5-7 in Big Ten play, distancing itself from the basement and joining a crowded midfield.
But after a double-sided offensive disaster in State College, Pa., the Terps came up on the wrong end of a 55-50 game Friday, Feb. 5. They dropped to 4-8 in the league and 10-9 overall, missing plenty of chances along the way.
Maryland continued its run of strong defensive performances, holding Penn State to 17-of-54 (31.5%) shooting for the game en route to 55 points in 63 possessions. But the Terps’ offense produced an even more emphatic clunker, connecting on just 17 of 48 shots (35.4%) and 3 of 17 triples (17.6%) while committing 16 turnovers. This game was close as a product of its sloppiness — the teams were tied 7-7 after 10 minutes and 23-23 at halftime, and Penn State survived despite missing eight of its final nine shots because Maryland clanked its last 10 attempts.
Here’s what stood out from the loss.
1. Eric Ayala was productive. Everyone else wasn’t.
The junior guard was a steady and commanding presence for the Terps, piling up 23 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field, 2-of-6 from deep and 9-of-9 from the foul line. His aggressiveness helped keep Maryland afloat in the second half, knocking down all eight of his free throws in the period.
The rest of the Maryland roster, on the contrary, shot 11-of-37 (29.7%) and combined for 27 points. No other Terps scored in double figures. Donta Scott and Darryl Morsell both shot 3-of-7 for nine and six points, respectively. Aaron Wiggins struggled mightily, scoring two points and shooting an abysmal 1-of-11 from the floor (0-of-4 from deep). And the 16 turnovers are especially jarring in contrast to Maryland’s grand total of six assists in the game.
Maryland’s offense has been up and down all season, looking like a different version of itself from game to game and often from half to half. But the Terps haven’t shot 50 percent or scored 70 points against a Big Ten foe since their Dec. 28 upset at Wisconsin. They’ve now shot 39.9 percent as a group across their last five games, even with two wins over ranked teams in that span. In a league this tough, that won’t be satisfactory in the long run.
2. The Terps’ rebounding woes proved costly.
Maryland actually led on the glass in the first half, pulling down 18 rebounds to Penn State’s 15. But the Nittany Lions dominated this realm after halftime, outrebounding the Terps 25-11 in the second half, including eight offensive boards. Penn State turned its 11-5 advantage on the offensive glass into an 11-4 lead in second-chance points, which essentially made the difference.
John Harrar, the Nittany Lions’ 6-foot-9, 240-pound center, had four of those offensive boards and grabbed 12 rebounds overall. As a team, Penn State won the board battle 40-29. This is as undersized a group as the Terps have faced in the Big Ten — Harrar is the tallest player on the roster — but thanks to their senior center, the Nittany Lions played big when it mattered.
3. This game started ugly and somehow finished uglier.
Maryland started 0-of-4 with six turnovers. The Terps didn’t make a basket until Scott connected on a 3 with 13:48 left in the opening frame. And when that shot fell, they were still only down 7-5. The score was 7-7 after 10 minutes — in basketball, not football. In the unofficial first quarter, Maryland shot 2-of-10 and Penn State was 3-of-15.
The Nittany Lions went on separate scoreless droughts of 7:08 and 3:57 in the first half and still went into halftime tied at 23. Maryland had an early drought of 5:43 and didn’t score for the last 2:47 of the period. Both teams combined to shoot 19-of-51 (37.3%) from the field and 5-of-22 (22.7%) from distance in the frame, and the Terps committed 11 turnovers for good measure. It was an eyesore, viewed best with safety goggles and a stiff drink.
But there’s something especially nauseating about watching sloppy basketball at the end of a close game. And that’s what we had here.
Ayala’s layup at the 7:32 mark brought Maryland within one point at 45-44. From there, though, the teams combined to make one (1) field goal in 17 attempts. That lone bucket came on a Myles Dread triple that extended Penn State’s lead to 53-46 at the 4:34 mark. Four minutes later, the Nittany Lions had nothing more, and Maryland had only cut into the deficit at the line. Ayala made it a 53-50 game with 34 seconds left, but Jamari Wheeler upped the margin back to five with free throws at the other end, and Maryland’s desperation heaves went awry, and that was that.
The difference between 5-7 and 4-8 in Big Ten play might be just one game, but for Maryland, it’s the difference between eighth and 11th in the conference standings. It might be the difference between being projected in and out of the NCAA Tournament. And with No. 7 Ohio State, one of the hottest teams in the country, visiting the Terps Feb. 8, this loss feels even more like a missed opportunity.
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