The Terps were 3-7 on the road this season (2 -7 in ACC play), while Alabama had yet to lose a game at Coleman Coliseum in 2013. The Crimson Tide went with a four guard lineup (something Maryland has struggled with all season), while the Terps were without PG Seth Allen, Maryland’s third leading scorer in the NIT. The Terps had struggled all year turning the ball over, while Alabama was known for an aggressive defense that specialized in turnovers. It all added up to an ill-fated Maryland loss, and if this game had taken place a month or so ago, they probably would have done just that.
But not these Terps. This group, winners of five of their last six contests, has been playing their best basketball of late, and Wednesday night they proved that they can meet adversity head on and triumph, as they defeated Alabama 58-57. Their resiliency to answer several Tide runs prevented another road letdown that would’ve felt all too familiar to Terps fans. Their reward is a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Semifinals, their first trip back to NYC since 2005 and seeking their first NIT title since 1972. The win gives Maryland 25 on the season, the most wins since the 2005-2006 season. The leading scorers were the usual suspects for MD (now 25-12 on the year), but the star of the game was a freshman who averaged just 5.5 PPG this season, and just 4.1 PPG over the past nine games.
The 1st Half:
The 1st half began as a perfect illustration of the Terps season; a roller coaster of highs followed by lows. Maryland scored on their first four possessions, and then followed with four straight turnovers (one of which was a questionable flagrant foul on Charles Mitchell). Following a Dez Wells made free-throw, Alabama’s hostile defense held Maryland scoreless for 8 minutes while the Tide went on an 8-0 run to claim a 13-10 lead.
But Maryland answered with a little hostility of their own, and returned the favor with an Alabama drought that lasted over 6 minutes. After the droughts came to a stop, Maryland outscored Alabama 21-11 in the final 9:30 to claim a 31-24 lead at the half. Despite those 4 early turnovers in the first 6 minutes of the game, the Terps only turned the ball over 3 more times in the final 14 minutes to finish with 7 for the half. And in spite of Maryland’s lengthy scoring drought, they still were able to shoot 54% from the floor. The Terps were led by Dez Wells who finished the half with 8 points on 3-5 shooting. The Crimson Tide defense had no answer to slow down Wells, who seemed to drive and cut through the Alabama defense at will every time he touched the ball. Alex Len, who has struggled to say the least during NIT action, had a solid 1st half with 6 points on 2-3 shooting along with 6 rebounds. Charles Mitchell added 6 points and 3 rebounds, while Jake Layman chipped in 5 points from the bench.
The Crimson Tide, who were ineffective from the field in the 1st half (9-26), were led by Rodney Cooper, who had 8 points on 3-5 shooting. Trevor Releford, the Tide’s leading scorer this season, seemed to struggle with his shot yet again, as he closed out the 1st half with only 2 points on 1-5 shooting. Nick Jacobs gave the Tide a boost from the bench with 4 and 3 rebounds, but remove Jacobs’ 2-3 shooting from the field, and the Alabama starting guards shot only 33% from the floor (6-18).
The 2nd Half:
During the half, coach Mark Turgeon went over to the white board in the locker room and jotted down some of the most memorable sports moments in Madison Square Garden’s illustrious history. After suffering many 2nd half letdowns during the year, Turgeon was trying to fire his team up, reminding them of what was at stake. The message seemed to reverberate.
The Terps defense turned up the pressure on Alabama’s guards using a full-court 1-3-1 press. It was successful, as the Terps built a 10 point lead in less than 4 minutes into the 2nd half. Len was the focal point in the Terps first 7 possessions as he took 4 of the Terps first 6 shots. But while Len was doing his part and picking up where he left off in the 1st half, Dez Wells really struggled. Wells 2nd half performance netted only 5 points and 3 turnovers, 2 of which came in the final 1:35. To make matters worse, Nick Faust, who made the first shot of the game, was nonexistent, and did not score for the rest of the evening.
With 6:30 left to play, Alabama cut Maryland’s lead down to just 4 due to sloppy play and turnovers by the Terps (5 turnovers in under 8 minutes). Alex Len had picked up his 4th foul and was heading to the bench. The Crimson Tide had all the momentum on their side. Following a Levi Randolph slam, Maryland’s lead was only down to 2 with 4:30 left to play. Just when Maryland looked as if they were headed towards another road collapse, freshman Jake Layman stepped up and answered the call.
Layman hit back-to-back 3-pointers when his team needed it the most. The Maryland lead was back to 8 with a little over 3 minutes to play, and the Terps had fought off yet another Crimson Tide run. But Alabama was not ready to call it a season just yet. Due to more turnovers and missed free-throws, the Tide went on an 8-1 run to cut their deficit to just 1 with 47 seconds left to play. After a failed Nick Faust 3-point attempt, Alex Len grabbed the rebound and was hacked on his shot attempt; he would head to the line with 27 seconds left with a chance to give his team a 3 point lead. Just a 70% FT shooter on the year, Len missed both, giving Alabama a chance to win the game instead of tying it in a worst case scenario. The only thing standing between MD and a trip to NYC was one more defensive stop.
The maturation of the Terps paid off, as the defense buckled down and held on to their 1 point lead for the victory. Rodney Cooper’s layup attempt resulted in an Alex Len block with 3 seconds left, and Trevor Lacey’s final attempt was just a bit short. The Terps earned a 58-57 win that snapped Alabama’s 12 game win streak on their home court.
Alex Len led the way for Maryland with 15 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks. Dez Wells, despite 5 turnovers, finished with 13 points on 5-10 shooting, along with 5 rebounds. Jake Layman, the star of the game, picked up the slack in Seth Allen’s absence, scoring 13 points to go with 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, and 3 steals. What’s remarkable is that Alabama, known for its stingy defense, allowed the Terps to shoot 50% from the field.
Alabama’s guards, who took 48 of the team’s 55 shots, were rather unsuccessful from the floor. Levi Randolph (15 points), Rodney Cooper (13 points), Trevor Releford (11 points), Trevor Lacey (5 points) and Retin Obasohan (2 points) combined to shoot 17-48 (35%) while committing 10 of the team’s 14 turnovers.
The Turning Point:
Alabama was making a run, and following a Rodney Cooper layup, the Terps lead was cut to 1. On the next Maryland possession, a shot came from someone no one was expecting to shoot: Pe’Shon Howard. Howard, who has had a really tough junior season (and has been the butt of ridicule from both his coach and Terps fans), stepped into a 3-point shot and sunk it, giving the Terps some breathing room. Following his basket was Jake Layman’s back-to-back 3-pointers, giving the Terps an 8 point lead with under 4 minutes to play.
What’s Next: The Terps will face off against the winner of the Iowa/Virginia matchup Tuesday night at 9:00pm ET. If Virginia wins, it will mark the third time Maryland has played Virginia this season. Virginia won the first meeting in College Park 80-69 and won the second meeting in Charlottesville 61-58 in OT.