BROOKLYN, N.Y. — No. 13 Maryland men’s basketball head coach Kevin Willard spent the week praising No. 7 Tennessee and Volunteers coach Rick Barnes ahead of the top-15 matchup.
Willard applauded the Volunteers’ defense, calling them the “best defensive team I’ve seen in a long time,” and said they don’t “blow you away” offensively but their defense is that good that they don’t have to. Willard’s analysis was spot on Sunday afternoon at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, as Tennessee’s offense was subpar, but its defense was excellent in a 56-53 win over Maryland.
Tennessee’s third-best scoring defense in the country held Maryland to 53 points, its lowest point total on the season. Despite a second-half surge from Maryland that saw it outscore Tennessee by 14 in the latter 20 minutes, its poor offensive performance in the first half was too much to overcome.
After trailing by 17 at halftime, Maryland had a chance to tie the game with 11 seconds to go. Guard Jahmir Young drove the lane and shot a floater that clanked off the iron, effectively ending Maryland’s comeback effort.
“I was really just trying to get a good shot for our team to win,” Young said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t fall.”
For two teams that average over 75 points per game, Sunday’s matinee got off to a slow start. Tennessee missed its first seven field goal attempts and Maryland made just one of its first six shots.
A highly anticipated top-15 matchup quickly become a drudge that provided little excitement for the pro-Maryland crowd.
By the time the first media timeout came, the score was a mere 5-2 in the Vols’ favor.
Maryland’s shaky offensive performance from its loss to Wisconsin earlier in the week carried over to Brooklyn in the first half. Maryland’s offense looked lost and stale, resulting in a plethora of poor looks from 3-point range. Out of the Terps’ first 11 shots, eight were 3-pointers, only one of which was a make.
Willard talked about his team’s trend of getting off to cold shooting starts. That troubling trend continued against Tennessee. The Volunteers’ defense was a wall that Maryland couldn't break through.
Tennessee is praised for having one of the best defenses in the country, and it showed. Maryland failed to penetrate any gaps on its drives and its looks from deep were met with contested closeouts.
But that didn’t stop Maryland from chucking it up from distance. Two-thirds of Maryland’s shots in the first half were threes.
Foul trouble also plagued the Terps in the first half. Senior forward Donta Scott picked up two early fouls, leading to sporadic shifts from the Philadelphia native. Sophomore forward Julian Reese — who finished with four fouls in the Terps’ last two games — had three fouls in the first half, leading to just seven minutes on the floor.
Maryland’s defense held strong despite its abysmal offensive performance, holding Tennessee to 28% shooting in the first half. But it didn’t matter with Maryland having virtually no success scoring the ball.
Tennessee slowly chipped away at the Terps, locking in defensively and dominating the glass until it built up a 20-point first-half lead with plenty of help from the ineptitude of Maryland’s offense.
Maryland finished the first half with 17 points, by far its lowest output in any half this season, and trailed 34-17.
“We we’re playing with no urgency,” Young said. “We were stagnant on the offensive end, they were being more physical and they were the tougher team.”
Maryland fought in the second half, crawling its way back into the game with a full-court press and quality shots. A Young and-one layup cut the Terps’ deficit to 15 and ignited the Maryland faithful in attendance. Tennessee responded, pushing the lead back to 16 with over 12 minutes to go.
“We knew we had to try something else,” Scott said. “We weren’t making the shots that we normally make so we had to try to get in the paint.”
With Tennessee knocking on the door of a blowout win, Maryland exploded on a 12-0 run to cut its deficit to six, riling up a sea of red in the crowd that had the Barclays Center rocking like the Terps were back home in College Park.
Maryland had a chance to send the game to overtime with 11 seconds to go trailing by two. but Young’s floater attempt sealed the Terps’ fate.
“They’re resilient,” Willard said when he was asked what he’s learned about his team. “They’re a good group to coach. I am not happy with them right now, but I've learned a lot.”
Three things to know
1. Julian Reese foul trouble. For the third straight game, Julian Reese was in foul trouble. It’s becoming a concerning trend that has, and will, plague a Maryland team lacking depth, particularly in the frontcourt. One of the biggest faults in Reese’s game last season was his lack of discipline. It appeared he had cleared that up in the early part of the season, but has since resorted back to old habits. Although he had four fouls against Wisconsin, he still played 31 minutes. However, it is harder to be an aggressive defender with the shadow of foul trouble lurking. Against Tennessee, Reese played 23 minute and finished with four fouls.
“I think I got to keep Julian in the game a little bit and he’s got to keep himself in the game,” Willard said. “I don't think we handled it very well.”
2. Maryland’s offensive strategy flipped from the first half to the second. Maryland’s offense was bad in the first half — and that’s putting it nicely. Maryland scored 17 points and shot 13% from the field in the opening 20 minutes; Sixteen of its 24 attempts were from three. Maryland made just three total field goals in the first half, and only one of them was a 2-pointer. Maryland rarely even tried to get to the rim with dribble-drives, instead settling for contested threes.
Maryland’s over-reliance on the 3-pointer dug it a huge hole in the first half, but Maryland got out of it by going away from the three. Maryland shot just eight threes in the second half, missing each of them, and shot 50% from the field. Maryland’s better shot selection sparked an improbable comeback.
3. Maryland has a matchup with UCLA at home to conclude a tough four-game stretch. Maryland is in the midst of its toughest four game stretch of the season, beating then-No. 16 Illinois, losing to Wisconsin on the road and dropping its game against Tennessee on Sunday. Now, it has to turn its attention to No. 19 UCLA on Wednesday for another likely top-25 matchup. Maryland’s second straight loss moves it to 8-2 on the season. While their lofty expectations have been briefly tempered, the Terps will have another chance to prove themselves against West Coast power UCLA.