BROOKLYN, N.Y. — No. 13 Maryland men’s basketball lost its second game in a row Sunday night, falling to No. 7 Tennessee, 56-53, at the Barclays Center.
The Terps were down by as many as 21 in the first half but staged a fierce second-half comeback to bring their deficit to as little as two on multiple occasions late in the game. Maryland will wrap up an unrelenting four-game stretch with a home game against No. 19 UCLA Wednesday night.
“This team, they’re resilient,” Maryland head coach Kevin Willard said. “They’re a good group to coach. I mean, I’m not happy with them right now obviously, but I’ve learned a lot about, I think the biggest thing that we’ve got to work on is obviously in-the-game kind of stuff. I think we got to get better at that and just kind of clean up what we want to do and how we want to do it.”
Let’s dive into three takeaways from the win.
Miserable shooting and a hounding Volunteers defense dug the Terps in an early and seemingly insurmountable hole.
The Terps were pitiful offensively to start the game, and it absolutely buried them against one of the best defenses in the nation.
Coming into the game, Tennessee had the best adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation according to KenPom.com, giving up just 82.8 points per 100 possessions. That improved to 81.4 points per 100 possessions, still the nation’s best mark, following the game.
Maryland started the game 2-for-8 from the field, which is certainly not good, but it only got worse from there.
Senior guard Hakim Hart hit a triple — Maryland’s second made field goal — with 13:22 to play in the half. It didn’t hit its next shot until graduate guard Jahmir Young hit a 3-pointer with 4:08 to play in the first half, a drought of over nine minutes.
“It really wasn’t them, it was just us,” Young said. “... We were stagnant on offense, they was being more physical.”
Maryland ultimately finished the first half with a 12.5% shooting percentage. The Terps went 3-of-24 from the field and 2-of-16 from beyond the arc in the first half. Maryland could not generate any sort of offense inside against Tennessee’s size and resistance, settling for two-thirds of its shots from deep in the first 20 minutes.
At 28.2% from the field, Tennessee certainly was not shooting at a world-beating rate in the first half. However, it took advantage of Maryland’s inability to do anything on offense, cruising to a 34-17 halftime lead.
The Terps ferocious second-half comeback came up short, and its 3-point shooting did not improve either. Maryland finished with a putrid 2-of-24 mark from deep, not making any of its 10 3-point attempts in the second half. That’s not exactly a recipe for success.
Maryland’s second-half press changed the pace of the game, helping spark a comeback.
The Terps never gained the lead following the under-16 media timeout of the first half, but they certainly fought.
Barclays Center felt like XFINITY Center North during the second half of Sunday’s contest as the Terps slowly chipped away. Part of Maryland’s comeback stemmed from the energy of its signature press that its fans have become accustomed to seeing during the start of the Willard era.
The Knoxville News Sentinel’s Mike Wilson scribed that the Vols struggled with Eastern Kentucky’s press Wednesday night, turning the ball over 10 times in the first half. Tennessee expected to see pressure from Maryland as well.
“We knew they would pressure us at some time, but I thought Kevin waited until the end when he needed it,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I’m not sure we got out of rhythm with the press. It was maybe a little frantic, but I thought our guys for the most part handled it pretty well.”
Because of the their offensive struggles, the Terps simply could not establish a press in the first 20 minutes. A team needs to make shots to set its press, and Maryland only reached point A of that two-part sequence three times in the first half.
“We were trying to go with it the whole game,” Willard said of the press. “It’s just, when you only make three field goals in the first half, it’s kind of tough to press. You kind of have to make baskets to press. Unfortunately, when you go 3-for-24 in a half, it’s kind of hard to press and wear a team down.”
Tennessee finished the game with 11 turnovers, eight of which came in the second half. While Barnes did not think that his team was out of control because of the press, it was clear the Terps sped the game up and forced Tennessee into uncomfortable situations.
Maryland could not match Tennessee’s physicality.
Yes, Maryland’s offensive display Sunday began and ended with an over-reliance on 3-pointers, but part of that was due to Tennessee’s ferocity in the paint.
The Vols often flustered the Terps with help defense down low and their physicality inside. Sophomore forward Julian Reese did not match that physicality early — our Kevin McNulty reported that Willard barked that word at him numerous times — and picked up his third foul before the first half reached its halfway point.
Reese’s foul trouble is starting to become a major concern, especially given Maryland’s lack of frontcourt depth on the bench. Graduate forward Patrick Emilien is a serviceable defensive player off the bench, but he only stands at six-foot-seven. Six-foot-11 freshman forward Caelum Swanton-Rodger was forced into the game for some of his first extended action of the season, but Maryland’s tallest player does not look ready to play meaningful minutes at the Division I level.
Worries have circulated about Maryland’s physicality with Reese both on and off the floor. Perhaps those rumblings are starting to be exposed as legitimate causes for concern.
“Yeah, I got to keep [Julian] in the game a little bit, and [Julian’s] got to keep himself in the game,” Willard said following a notable pause. “I didn’t think, again, I don’t think we handled it very well at all. I’m asking Pat to do a lot of things. Pat’s six-six trying to play against a seven-foot-one guy who looks like Ivan Drago, he’s not going to win that battle very often, so I think we’ve got to do a little bit better job. And I think [Caelum’s] progressing, again, it’s just, it’s tough to play a freshman, ask him to go in there, ‘Hey, this is your first minutes, you’re playing the No. 7 team in the country.’ It’s hard.”
Tennessee six-foot-11 forward Jonas Aidoo missed Sunday’s game with an illness, but the Vols remained overwhelming on the offensive glass. Tennessee had a whopping 21 offensive rebounds on the night — 13 in the first half and eight in the second half.
“No, I don’t think we dealt with it very well at all,” Willard said. “I mean, we gave up 21 offensive rebounds. So I would say that was not a win on our side. We knew how big they were, we knew how athletic they were, but we just let them push us around a little bit too much. I really thought, especially early in the game ... we let them set the tone a little bit.”
Tennessee may be the most physical team Maryland has played all season, but it won’t be the last. The Terps will have to match future opponents’ toughness, starting Wednesday against UCLA and in January when it’s exclusively Big Ten play. Of course, that may be easier said than done.