COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Alex Len finished with 10 points and six boards, tipping in an errant Pe’Shon Howard shot with just 0.9 seconds left on the clock as the Terps knocked off No. 14 NC State at the Comcast Center, 51-50.
Maryland had twice taken a ten point lead — the second of which came midway through the second half at 42-32. But the Wolfpack came storming back, using a 16-3 run to take a 48-45 lead on a Scott Wood three. After a pair of free throws and a bucket from Len, Lorenzo Brown, who finished with a game-high 17 points, hit a pull-up jumper to give the Wolfpack a 50-49 lead, setting up Maryland’s final possession.
That possession worked out swimmingly. With 5.2 seconds left on the clock, Howard took the inbounds and drove left, throwing up a runner — “He said it wasn’t a miss, it was a pass,” Led said with a chuckle after the game — that happened to fall right into the hands of the future lottery pick.
Said Turgeon, “We were pretty lucky at the end.”
The play looked eerily reminiscent of the play that won NC State and Jim Valvano the 1983 national title against Houston’s Phi Slama Jama team, and Seth Allen drew a chuckle from reporters after the game when asked if he had every seen Lorenzo Charles’ title-winning, buzzer-beating putback. “I’m too young,” he said, “I just turned 18.”
The irony would be too much — NC State losing on the same kind of play that won them their only national title! — if it wasn’t a sign of a bigger issue for Maryland. The play that Howard ran wasn’t at all what Mark Turgeon drew up in the huddle. According to Len, Turgeon wanted the ball going to Logan Aronhalt. According to Turgeon, however, the play was “supposed to be an up-screen for Alex. We down-screened.” According to the tape, the play was for Howard to drive baseline, throw up a pair that happens to fall into Len’s hands and for Terp fans to storm the floor.
I’m not sure anyone knows what was supposed to happen.
The reason this is a concern is that Maryland has struggled in close games this season, and a big reason for that is shoddy late-game execution. They had a chance to knock off Kentucky in their season-opener but couldn’t get a shot off on the game’s final possession when they were down by three. In a three-point loss to Florida State, Allen had a three blocked on the final possession of the game. On Sunday, in a 54-47 loss at Miami, the Terps couldn’t execute offensively for 40 minutes, let alone down the stretch.
“Kentucky, we needed a three but we didn’t pass it,” Turgeon said. “Florida State, we didn’t drive it. We settled for a jump shot.”
Which brings us back to Wednesday night, where the Terps escaped despite the fact that, once again, they couldn’t run the play that Turgeon drew up in the huddle.
“We were 0-for-timeouts,” Turgeon said. “There wasn’t one timeout where they did what I wanted them to. Not one. It’s frustrating. We practiced timeouts two days ago. Lined up, practiced it. It’s where we are right now. It’s not a lot of fun. You’re sitting there and Pe’Shon’s looking at me, dribbling the ball at half court like, ‘What?’ after we drew up the play in the timeout. It’s frustrating.”
Timeouts aren’t the only time where the Terps struggle to execute offensively.
“Eventually, when I have a program long enough, we’re going to execute a lot better than we did,” Turgeon continued. “I can’t add enough stuff because they cant’t consume it all right now. We’re really limited with some of the stuff we can do.”
“They can do it in practice, but as soon as the lights are on, they don’t know.”
That’s a problem, and one that goes well beyond their struggles getting to get Len the ball in a position to score on Wednesday or Howard’s inability to make a shot since the calendar turned.
Len is going to make a lot of money in the NBA, and it’s likely going to be sooner rather than later; he’s a lottery pick. But outside of the Big Ukranian, the Terps don’t really have all that much scoring punch. They do, however, have a bunch of grinders — guys like Dez Wells, and Shaquille Cleare, and Charles Mitchell. It’s quite reminiscent of the teams that Turgeon put together at Texas A&M, where he built a program known for defense and offensive execution. They didn’t put up huge numbers or ride a wave of one-and-doners to NCAA tournament glory.
It was workmanlike. It was blue-collar. It worked.
And until the Terps reach a point where they can thrive on their offensive execution instead of headlong, 1-on-1 drives at the rim and hoisting up first-pass threes, they are going to continue to underperform. And rest assured, right now, this group is underperforming.
Having said that, at the end of the day, Maryland got a win. They knocked off the No. 14 team in the country. The beat the Wolfpack four days after the Wolfpack beat Duke. They got a win that is going to look good on their tournament resume and give them hope and confidence heading into one of the most difficult stretches on their schedule. Three of their next four games are on the road: at North Carolina, at Duke and at Florida State.
They can be excited about this win, but there is still a lot of season to be played and even more work to be done to get better.
“It’s just one game,” Turgeon said. We’re going to celebrate, I was happy for the guys and the sutdents, storming the court and all.”
“[But] we just talked about how we haven’t won a big game since Grieivis Vasquez was here. I didn’t come here to be mediocre. The players didn’t come here to be mediocre. I asked them why they came here. I told them I came here to be a part of something much bigger than myself.”
“I came here to do great things. This is one great thing. Hopefully, this will lead us to other great things.”
You just can’t rely on luck to make that happen.