Saying the Maryland Terrapins' NIT Second Round game against the Denver Pioneers wasn't always pretty would be something of an understatement. The Terps were soundly outplayed for 31 minutes and found themselves needing a late run to avoid an embarrassing exit - but when push came to shove (or, more accurately, elbow), they got exactly the run they needed.
Maryland overcame a nine-point deficit in the final nine minutes, swinging the scoreline 19 points to eventually run out 62-52 winners over the upstart Pioneers, a scoreline that belies just how dangerous this game was. Their height advantage was rendered virtually useless against a short Denver lineup, and Chris Udofia terrorized their defense, dropping 24 points and seemingly only able to be stopped by his own foul trouble. They was uncharacteristically sloppy for most of the game, shredded by Denver's methodical Princeton attack. And they missed all number of easy layups, which made it fiendishly difficult to put together a run.
In fact, after a back and forth first half, the Pioneers were the ones to put things together in the first eleven minutes of the second period, jumping out to a nine-point lead with only nine to play. The Terps seemed lackluster at that point, and prospects weren't promising.
Then came a Royce O'Neal flagrant foul, elbowing Jake Layman in the jaw after a rebound while Layman reached in. O'Neal missed the front end of his one-and-one; Nick Faust drained both of the flagrant free throws, and the lead was cut to seven. That's about when Mark Turgeon decided to eschew any trace of post play, going with an unconventional five guard look, matching Denver's own smaller lineup. That, plus Udofia's extended stay on the bench with four fouls, gave the Terps a chance against Denver's offensive attack and helped them get out on the break, where they're increasingly efficient and effective.
After that point, Denver scored all of four points, coming on a layup and a dunk. The Terps did a better job of staying with the Pioneers' cutters, and had significantly better defensive rotation and closing out on shooters, never giving up an easy look. Maryland, getting stops, was able to get out and run, and when they were forced into a halfcourt look they dumped inside to Dez Wells, who was stronger and more athletic than anyone matched against him in the post. Udofia eventually came back in, only to quickly foul out; Turgeon kept in the five guards, and Maryland never slowed down, steamrolling those final nine minutes in impressive fashion.
Having watched the game, it's almost impossible to believe that this was a ten point win ... but the scoreboard doesn't lie. Oh, yes, Maryland was flat, they were sloppy, they failed to take advantage of their biggest advantages, and they had a few guys who barely showed up. But when you're a more athletic, more talented team than your opponent, you can get away with those things so long as you do eventually come to play. And when you can run like Maryland is starting to run, no deficit is too sizable to overcome. The Terps eventually came to play, and they ran, and in the end that was enough to win by a deceptively comfortable margin.
First, the upside: I find that fact oddly comforting, for two reasons. The first is that Mark Turgeon continues to show a flexibility and pragmatism I wasn't sure was there midway through the year. He's letting his guys run more, he's letting them press more - hell, now he's going to 1-3-1 zones and five-guard lineups and really short rotations just for in-game adjustments. He had a spell where he didn't seem to know what buttons to push, whether it was due to his own struggles or whether he was trying to get his young team to do the basics right before allowing adjustments or whether he was simply as confounded by his team as we were; whatever it was, he's figured out how to get them clicking again. And the other reason it's encouraging, to me at least, is that Maryland once again showed some moxie in coming back after sleepwalking through 31 minutes, this time not against a bigger, better opponent in an "encouraging" loss, but against a smaller one that punched them in the mouth. And they were playing so well for those nine minutes they showed up for that they made the win seem comfortable. Playing poorly but getting wins is a heck of a lot more enjoyable than playing well but getting losses, and it's a cliche but it's something that successful teams manage to do.
But there's a bunch of concerns, too, especially with another small-lineup team in Alabama potentially waiting in the regional finals. Namely, well, Maryland did sleepwalk through 31 minutes. The first half was disappointing but not too worrisome; the first eleven minutes of the second, though, were mighty discouraging, as Maryland continued to look inferior to a team they were (obviously) better than. That's probably a mental issue with simply not showing up at the start, and it's also another reminder that they're a young team that will have days where they don't execute. Against a better team, they'd not have been so lucky.
There aren't too many Princeton offense teams out there, but what Denver did exploited Maryland's occasional lack of discipline on defense. And on the other end, tonight served as a reminder that the Terps' halfcourt offense is middling at best and anemic at worst. Especially in those first 11 minutes of the second half, there were some issues with effort, too, given that Maryland should've dominated on the boards but ended up with an even margin.
Of course, they also completely shut down all of Denver's scorers not named Udofia and, had they hit any number of easy layups, probably would've won by a much larger margin. (And as an added bonus, Maryland outshot Denver from the stripe 79% to 53%. Flip those, like it probably would've been earlier in the year, and do the Terps win?) So not all was bad; after all, they did win by 10.
Hopefully this game scared the Terps a bit. They'll be well-served by learning from it. But they survived and advanced at the end of the day, and even showed that they're still immensely dangerous in those final nine minutes. They get another chance to show their stuff next round after a bit of rest, and with any luck it'll be another step forward.