Another game against high-level conference opposition. Another frustrating loss. Another showcase of Maryland's shortcomings. And another contest that seemed to wrap up Maryland's season in 40 minutes of basketball.
The Terrapins came into Sunday's matchup with Virginia having won two straight against ACC bottom-feeders, reviving some hope in the team, with the NCAA Tournament looking like an outside possibility. But the Virginia game was virtually a must-win, given their lack of margin for error down the back stretch. It wasn't the first time they had walked into a similar scenario, with a chance to grow up, build momentum, and improve their tournament resume. But unless they won, it likely was their last, or at least their last meaningful chance.
Forty minutes later, the Cavs ran out of Comcast Center as 80-69 winners, with Maryland putting up a valiant second half effort but never really looking like the better team, rarely threatening the lead, and showing once again that they're far from the finished product as a team. They lost the rebounding battle, 34-29; they allowed Virginia to shoot 54% from the field, and a back-breaking 58% from three. The Terps themselves managed only 46% shooting, and ended up 5-17 from deep. Their defense was inconsistent, their offense sloppy, their rebounding disappointing. They were out-executed all game long, and at no point did their superior talent and athleticism ever look like taking over.
It's not the first time we've seen this script. Maryland's season is filled with respectably gutsy performances, only to have the actual basketball let them down and show that, no, they're just not as good as we thought they'd be, or indeed perhaps as good as they should be (a discussion, though, likely for another time). It happened against Miami, against Florida State, against North Carolina, against Florida State the second time. Each time, the fatal flaw changes slightly, from offensive execution to shooting to inexperience and composure to (this time) defense and rotation. They have no lack of options there, sadly. They're still a young team, and there's still hope they'll overcome those flaws - most teams do, eventually. But that's cold comfort nowadays, especially as it looks looks particularly unlikely that it'll happen in time to make the season mean something.
But we'll get to more of that type of talk momentarily. For those looking for a recap: the first half was one of the stranger twenty minutes of basketball Maryland's had this year. Virginia shot a stellar 52% from the floor, including 45% from deep, to the Terps' 35% from the floor and 14% (1-7) from beyond the arc. The Cavs, shockingly, outrebounded Maryland, 20-14, in large part due to the substantial number of misses from the Terrapins. Justin Anderson, who came into the game with a chip on his shoulder, dropped 14; Joe Harris threw up 12 of his own. No Terrapin had more than 6. And, oddest of all, Maryland won the turnover battle, giving the ball away only four times to UVA's nine.
So once again, if it weren't for turnovers, the game would've been out of sight by halftime. But this time, the script was flipped: it was the giveaways that kept Maryland in the game, with the margin being only six at halftime, 35-29, when it easily could've been more.
But given the unsustainability of the turnover margin - the Terps ended up losing it 9-7 in the second half - Maryland needed to turn their performance around in the second half to have a chance, and, frustratingly, they didn't. Virginia, aided by poor defensive rotation, continued to shoot the lights out from deep - especially Paul Jesperson and Evan Nolte, who knocked down six second-half three-pointers between them. Maryland was unorganized offensively for the first ten minutes of the half, struggling to get any decent looks and often relying on players going solo and getting buckets that way. Predictably, it was unsuccessful, and the Hoos led by 13 at the ten-minute mark, with the game looking well in hand.
A sudden uptick in intensity brought about by some good play by Pe`Shon Howard and Maryland uncharacteristically adopting the press made it a game late, with the Terps often cutting the lead down to eight in the final few minutes. But the Terps could never get over the hump, due in large part to Virginia's consistently back-breaking three-pointers (they shot 6-8 in the second half from deep) and Maryland's own inconsistent offensive showing. There were plenty of opportunities to make a run, but the Terrapins never truly sustained one, and overcoming the deficit was a bridge too far. A Jesperson three-pointer with just over two minutes to go, pushing the lead to twelve, iced it; some garbage time free throws supplied the final margin.
Many probably already assumed that making a run at the tournament was asking too much for Maryland this year, but there was a chance at it if everything broke right down the stretch. Now, that's looking particularly unlikely. Not just because Maryland lost a game they probably needed win, but because once again they looked outclassed in doing so.
And they did - it's not a bad thing that they did, but this wasn't a case of Virginia simply playing out of their skins. They played better than they are, probably, but not substantially so, and most of that was because Maryland allowed them to. At no point did the Terrapins make them uncomfortable defensively, and most of their three-pointers were open looks. Similarly, Maryland had plenty of advantages in size and athleticism that went unused throughout the game. There was a gulf in execution and all-around quality today. In no way am I attempting to be critical by noting that; the Cavs deserve their due for the way they played, though it's not particularly encouraging for Maryland.
In all honesty, actually, we didn't learn a thing about the Terps today we didn't already know. They're who we thought they were before the game. It's not compelling for blog reading, but it's the situation. The only "new" takeaways are that they're still not turning that corner, still not making serious improvement, and still have Achilles' heels all over the place. It's immensely frustrating to watch as a fan, but at this point there's no choice other than accepting it for the time being. There are no scapegoats to be had - it was a team loss, with few cogs (other than Howard) emerging with much credit.
It's frustrating and disappointing to watch, but increasingly these days most games are. Once again, we look to the future to find hope.
More on it later, either tonight or tomorrow. For now, I turn it over to you.