Maryland's nervy 70-62 win over the Cornell Big Red was certainly a strange one; it included probably Maryland's best stretch of play in the season, as well as arguably their worst.
The Terrapins started the game on a 16-2 run, nearly blowing Cornell out of the building in the opening minutes. They held a 22-point lead just minutes later, and appeared destined to record an easy blowout in their final tune-up game before ACC play begins. There was some sloppy play just before the half that cut into the Terps' lead, but they still took a comfortable 41-26 lead into the break.
And then everything fell apart. This time it was the Big Red who opened up the half on a torrid run, even eclipsing Maryland's earlier stretch. The Terrapins literally couldn't hit a shot - they didn't make their first field goal of the second half until the 8:34 mark. At the half-way of the second half Cornell had gone on an 18-4 run and cut the lead, once seemingly insurmountable, to only a point.
Maryland's half-court offensive struggles are surely the main culprit in the breakdown, but some well-timed individual play by Sean Mosley, Terrell Stoglin, and particularly Alex Len down the stretch helped them hold off the surging Big Red. Cornell often made it an anxious affair, but Maryland had a habit of knocking down timely shots, and they never actually surrendered the lead, making it the Terrapins' second consecutive wire-to-wire victory.
There's a lot to digest in this one, which I'll be doing below the jump, but first, a quick thought: before this season, Maryland had escaped it's non-conference guarantee games without a loss only once in the last four years. Many teams better than this one fell victim on their own floor to teams like Morgan State and William and Mary. For all of the worrisome tendencies and tense moments Maryland saw in the past month, they didn't lose a game. And that's worth something. The Terrapins will enter ACC play at 10-3, and while that's hardly a breathtaking mark, it's also a perfectly respectable one. Take thanks in that much.
I'll start with the good, to keep things cheerful. First of all, Maryland got two absolutely immense performances tonight from Mosley and Len. Immense. Mosley looked like perhaps the best player on the floor despite a bum ankle that's forced him off the court for a few minutes in the first half. He was immeasurably clutch tonight, leading all players with 19 points and hitting any number of critical baskets. He's done well to let the game come to him all season - perhaps too much so, which has contributed heavily to his recent lackluster box scores - but he was front-and-center tonight, and responded. Maryland needed a scorer and a leader tonight, and Mosley stepped up. Major props.
The other big performer was Len (*insert size joke here*). It's incredible how consistently good his numbers have been: he hit his averages more or less on the money tonight, with 14 points and 9 rebounds. It's still a bit shocking just how much of an impact he has on the game thanks solely to his height; he was Maryland's offense at some points in the second-half, and was probably the biggest factor in their effort to hold onto their lead.
There are very legitimate concerns about his tendencies to foul - he jumped a lot at fakes and found himself with four fouls tonight - and that will be a worry come ACC play. But it's incredible how good he's looked in his first three games. He's almost always the biggest player on the floor by a huge margin, which he knows how to use to his advantage on the offensive end. Maryland needs to get him more touches consistently, or they'll be prone to slowdowns like the one they saw tonight. That said, a lot of his points came in James Padgett-esque garbage buckets, where he got second chances or worked hard on the glass. That effort and hustle is remarkable to see, particularly in someone of his size, and it's a real reason for optimism. (One note: what's up with his hands? One minute he can't catch a ball, the next he's wearing stickum. I guess it's just inconsistency based on inexperience, but I hope stickum-handed Olexiy is the real Olexiy.)
And, of course, the first 15 minutes or so of this game looked fantastic. Maryland's defense was good, their offense was able to penetrate Cornell's zone, and just about everything that could've gone right did go right. Perhaps the most impressive thing was the crisp movement, both off the ball and of the ball, that Maryland has struggled with all year. It was quite the impressive stretch, and Maryland looked like a tournament team during it.
Obviously, the next 25 minutes or so were a completely different story. I don't want to use bombastic language here, but I don't think I'm exaggerating when I'm saying that the second half was a pretty disastrous showing. It was bad on both sides of the floor, but let's start on offense, where Maryland basically stopped running sets and started throwing the ball away at incredible rates. After only three turnovers in the first half, the Terrapins gave the ball away 10 times in the bad 25 minutes, many of which led to easy buckets for Cornell at the other end. And, naturally, much of the problems with shooting the ball and the huge scoring drought had to do with the offensive execution. The offense didn't run the same sharp sets we saw in the first half, were much sloppier generally, and took much worse shots - looking directly at Nick Faust on that last mark,given that he shot 1-11 today. They didn't value possession enough, either by avoiding turnovers or finding good shots.
That was probably largely a team failure, and it was fueled by Len and Stoglin being in foul trouble. I didn't think it was Pe'Shon Howard's best performance, though; he's supposed to be the guy who makes the offense tick, and despite being on the floor all game, it never really did. He did hit a big three-pointer, but had another four turnovers that really hurt. He needs to be smarter with the ball and tone down some of the more ambitious passes.
I was also disappointed just about across the board as far as individual performances go. Faust's offensive performance was a massive step back, and not just in his shooting form - he just continually took awful shots that killed Maryland's offensive rhythm. He needs to focus on getting in a rhythm by taking the ball to the hoop and trying to draw defenders to him or draw contact at the net. Ashton Pankey was just about invisible when he wasn't getting schooled by Eitan Chemerinski, and James Padgett was pretty much a non-factor in his 16(!) minutes.
The biggest disappointment is probably the general lack of focus and the inability to kill Cornell off when they were down. Maryland had this in the bag after about four minutes of play, but they never put their foot on Cornell's throat and finished the job. They let the Big Red back in the game, and it almost killed them. That seems like a combination of inexperience and a lack of mental toughness, both of which will be improved with game time. If they take the same nonchalant approach in an ACC game, though, their foe won't be as forgiving next time around.
It's important to note, throughout all this, that Cornell was probably Maryland's best tune-up opponent, and the Terrapins still won by 8. An eight-point win over Cornell isn't really a bad result. Yet I feel worse about this game than I did about any of the others. I'm guessing that's because we were this close to felling really good about Maryland heading into the ACC, and instead, despite playing at full-strength, we still feel about the same.
If they can figure out how to keep their foot on the pedal at all times, this team has some serious potential, as the first 15 minutes showed. But they aren't there yet. This sets an interesting stage for the rest of the season, and I wouldn't be surprised with quite a few interesting results - either good or bad.
Last word: Maryland's still 10-3. There were many times when it seemed they wouldn't be, but they eked it out. And given that many didn't expect them to be 10-3 right now, that's something in which it's worth taking solace.