Maryland started their season in Brooklyn. They'll end it in Manhattan.
The Terrapins secured their symmetrical season-ender by defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide on the road in the NIT quarter-finals, 58-57, in an ugly, somewhat fortuitous win - but a win nonetheless, and one no less sweet for it. Alex Len led the way with 15 points, but missed two potentially-critical free throws down the stretch, before partially redeeming himself with a blocked shot on Alabama's final possession. The most important plays of the game, though, came from Jake Layman, who along with Pe`Shon Howard hit three consecutive three-pointers to balloon a one-point lead back up to eight late in the second half, after the Tide had made a run.
The win gives the Terps a berth in the NIT semi-finals in Madison Square Garden, where they'll face the winner of Iowa and Virginia - with the potential to grab revenge against the Cavaliers surely the preferred option. But in addition to being big on its own merits, it's yet another validating moment for a still-growing team. The NIT has been full of them: first came the win over Niagara, avoiding a letdown; then came the flexibility and toughness shown in the grind-it-out win over Denver. The next step was to beat a good team on the road, something they hadn't yet done this year. Until, at least, now.
And the Tide didn't make it easy on them. Maryland led by as many as 10 in the second half, but Alabama hadn't lost at their place since December; a run was always coming. The second half was more or less just the Terrapins trying desperately to cling to their lead and hold off the Tide, which they ultimately did: despite trailing by only one on multiple occasions, Alabama could never take a second-half lead, thanks in large part to timely baskets.
Maryland should've put the game away long before, there's no doubt about that. But Alabama is one of the best halfcourt defenses in the game, and the Terrapins predictably struggled against it. Despite the disappointments in how they failed to handle the ball and poor individual performances from Dez Wells and Nick Faust, though, Maryland was still the better team over 40 minutes and deserved their win. That it came on the road, against a team that was one of the first out of the NCAA tourney, that hadn't lost at home in months, without their best ballhandler and most dynamic bench scorer, and in spite of poor performances from their go-to guys - well, it's impressive, in its own way.
A lot needs to get fixed from this game, without a doubt; Pe`Shon Howard struggled, the halfcourt offense was somewhere between non-existent and anemic without Alex Len, and turnovers were far too common, especially in crunch time. But those are Maryland's weaknesses and Alabama's strengths; they were always going to be problems. That Len dominated, the Tide were terrible on offense themselves (thanks partially to Maryland's own defense), and the Terps actually shot it well when they were able to get a shot off - 50% from the field, 7-15 from downtown - are all positives, too. As is the toughness required to win that type of game.
Boxes just keep getting checked. They had to beat a team that would go small and play slow. Then they had to do it again, against a high-major, as an underdog, on the road. Neither really happened in the regular season. And now? Well, if the basketball gods are kind, maybe they'll get one last chance to get that Virginia monkey off their backs.