NEW YORK – Maryland lost to Kentucky 72-69 on Friday night in the inaugural Barclays Center Classic in a game that will surely leave a bitter taste in the Terrapin’s mouth.
After digging themselves a 15 point hole with a combination of poor shot selection and abysmal defense, Mark Turgeon’s club completely changed the game in the second half. A 21-4 run turned what had been a 53-38 deficit into a 59-57 lead over the No. 3 ranked Wildcats, and if it wasn’t for the heroic efforts of a walk-on that didn’t even make the Maryland scouting report, the Terps could have very well left New York with a statement victory.
A tough loss indeed.
But it was one that showed the Terps truly will be a factor in the ACC race this season.
The biggest reason, quite obviously, is Maryland’s biggest player — 7-foot-1 Ukranian Alex Len. Len finished with 23 points, 12 boards and four blocks, thoroughly outplaying Kentucky’s vauned pair of seven-foot freshmen, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. Things may be different when he is forced to go up against a more physical post defender — like, for example, Miami’s Reggie Johnson or NC State’s Richard Howell, someone that can force him off of the block — but all indications, to this point, are that Len will live up to his preseason hype. And in this day and age, how many teams can say they have a legitimate, seven-foot center that is a scoring threat on the block?
“He was a huge weapon for us,” Turgeon said after the game. “We expect great things out of him. Hopefully we can give him a little more help on the perimeter moving forward.”
The end of Turgeon’s statement may actually be the most important takeaway from Friday night’s loss.
Maryland’s top four perimeter players — Dez Wells, Nick Faust, Pe’Shon Howard and Seth Allen — combined to shoot 9-43 from the field and 2-14 from three. That is, quite frankly, atrocious. But it’s also not the kind of performance that you should become accustomed to with this group. On the one hand, Maryland did get a lot of good looks from the perimeter; they just missed them. And when the Terps finally put the ball on the floor and got to the rim, they ran into a pair of seven-foot shot-blockers that will end up being first-round draft picks. That won’t happen again this season.
They fought. They battled in the paint (28 offensive rebounds). And they came back from 15 down against one of the favorites to win the national title. No one likes moral victories, but any coach would take a loss where there team went down swinging than a 20 point drubbing on national television.
I still believe that Maryland is a year away from truly contending in the ACC. But if they proved anything on Friday, it’s that they will be a factor in the league race in February and March.
“We’re gonna win, and we’re gonna win this year,” Turgeon said. “I promise you that. We just didn’t win tonight.”