Maryland needed this in the worst way.
The Terrapins entered Wednesday's game against #14 N.C. State at a crossroads, a young team in flux with a middling resume in the middle of a slump. Their lineup was unsettled, their identity questionable, their future, both short- and long-term, uncertain.
And they come out the other side with a nailbiter of a close win, toppling the Wolfpack 51-50 and reigniting confidence in the program, from both fans and the players themselves. It's the type of win that goes on a resume during March, the type of win that could kickstart a winning streak, and perhaps the type of win that causes a young team to grow up, even if only a little bit.
Many of the same problems - inconsistent offense, lack of composure, some odd coaching decisions - were present, and they serve as reminders that, while this is a good team, it's not a perfect one. That's okay, though, because when they play defense as well as they did tonight, and when they limit large-scale mistakes like they did tonight, and when Alex Len shows up, even for short bursts, like he did tonight in the final two minutes, they'll be a very difficult team to beat. And if they can get some offense thrown in there with all that? They still can be the dangerous team everyone expected them to be a month ago.
It was an ugly game, no doubting that, but it's better to win ugly than lose pretty. Mark Turgeon's a grinder of a coach, and he has no problem turning a game into muck if it means getting out with a win. That's what Maryland did here, facing one of the best offenses in the country and causing them all sorts of problems with disciplined, physical, and most of all smart play. Had the Terrapins converted a few easy looks in transition - they missed at least four, by my count - they might've won comfortably; had they been able to hit a shot or two of their own in the halfcourt, they would've run away with it.
We saw glimpses of that sort of dominance, in particular early in the first and second halves. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead right out of the gates with their new lineup, and looked as good as anyone had dared to hope. After State whittled it down by halftime, they stretched the margin to 10 once again early in the second half, aggressively attacking the rim and finding holes in State's defense.
But those offensive bursts were inconsistent, thanks in part to Maryland's substitution patterns - it's officially time to shorten the rotation, as virtually everyone will agree - and thanks in part to Mark Gottfried showing an odd bit of coaching acumen, switching to a zone in the second half and completely confounding Turgeon and the Terrapins. That, plus a few moments of magic from Lorenzo Brown, was how the Wolfpack eventually gained a three-point lead late in the second half and had their chance to win, despite Maryland leading virtually wire-to-wire.
They probably would've, too, except for one little thing: Maryland had Alex Len, and N.C. State didn't. Len dominated the final four minutes of the game: he knocked down two free throws right after State first took their three-point lead; shortly after, he threw down an alley-oop from Pe`Shon Howard to give Maryland the lead; then he blocked a shot from C.J. Leslie; and then, finally, he dunked in a missed shot (or pass) from Howard with a single second remaining on the clock, giving Maryland their one-point victory.
This was a game that was, in some ways, won by Maryland's defense, but if there was a single standout performer, it was unquestionably Len. There have been Nick Faust Games, Seth Allen Games, Dez Wells Games, even Jake Layman Games this season, but this is the first Alex Len Game since the opener, something quite odd given that he's probably Maryland's best player. The Terrapins need him on his game if they're going to go places this year, something that both he and Turgeon need to work on. Perhaps this served as a reminder of what he's capable of, even if he only impacts a game for a matter of minutes; perhaps it even could give him a jolt of confidence to step up for the rest of the year.
There's an absurd amount to get through after this type of game, and we'll get to it all in due time. But for now, celebrate a top-25 win on national television. Juan knows they've been rare enough in recent years.