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Three takeaways from Maryland men’s basketball’s loss to Purdue

Here’s what stood out from the Christmas Day defeat.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland men’s basketball fell to Purdue, 73-70, in a Christmas Day matchup Friday. The Terps trailed by as much as 15 and rallied back for a chance late, but couldn’t pull off the victory.

Here are my biggest takeaways from the defeat.

The Terps don’t have a go-to closer

There’s a reason why the biggest storyline heading into the season was centered around who would step in to fill the shoes of Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith. On the surface, the concern was replacing the two leading scorers. But what made those two players so special was their ability to help mount comebacks and close games down the stretch.

Against Illinois at Xfinity Center, Cowan hit a mind-boggling triple from the Gary Williams court logo to complete the comeback for a 59-58 victory. At Indiana, Smith sealed the deal for a 77-76 win with a steal and layup in the final minute. When Maryland faced Nebraska at home, Smith had a block and then made two shots at the free-throw line to ensure a 72-70 victory. Maryland trailed Michigan State by one point on the road with around two and a half minutes left and Cowan went on a personal 8-0 run to lead the team to a 67-60 win.

Though maybe not as effective in churning out wins over and over, similar things could be said about players of recent years such as Melo Trimble and Bruno Fernando.

Through the early games of the season, it became clear that this team would be a committee of scorers, with Turgeon and players also talking about how anyone could step up at any time.

But, when it comes down to a crunch time late game situation like the one the Terps faced against Purdue, that doesn’t always cut it. Because, in reality, there needs to be a certain player or players that can be looked at to carry a team on its back in that crucial moment, to make the right play.

Maybe there is that player on this team, maybe there isn’t; only time will tell. And while Maryland showed a ton of fight and grit to get back and have a chance at victory, no one stepped up to be that guy Friday to ensure the win.

“This is this year’s team, that was last year’s team,” Turgeon said. “We played a really good Purdue team that played well and we battled. So I’m encouraged. I don’t know what lies ahead, the league is so darn good, but I was encouraged with our effort and our toughness tonight.”

Donta Scott lit up in the second half and was a huge reason that the team even had a chance to win this game late. But he didn’t have the ball in his hands or the play drawn up for him on the final possessions of the matchup. There is no telling how that could have played out, but it is clear that those with the ball in their hands couldn’t get it done.

Darryl Morsell chose to drive into the paint instead of passing back out to wide open shooters on the perimeter, but still, he drew the foul. He then had a chance to tie the game with 18 seconds left at the charity stripe, but he missed both shots.

On the Terps’ next offensive possession, Ayala had plenty of time on the shot clock, yet he chucked up a contested three while leaning into his defender on a jerky stepback attempt instead of making the right pass or directing players to get in position so such a pass could be made. And no one else put enough effort into off-ball offense to make something happen.

“We kind of set like a step-up screen at half court. We was just trying to get a three. I tried to draw a foul a little bit, didn’t get it,” Ayala said. “And yeah, that’s that.”

Turgeon and players noted how that play wasn’t why they lost the game. Of course, losses come down to way more than that. But when you have a closer, those past mistakes can be made up for when a game is tied or close late. Maryland needs to find that guy or draw up better plays in late game situations, or, ideally, both.

Rotations are still a work in progress

Head coach Mark Turgeon tinkered with his rotations a lot in this one, including a brand new starting five.

Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Hakim Hart, Jairus Hamilton and Donta Scott were all on the court for the opening tipoff, but within a few minutes Galin Smith and Chol Marial had both seen game action to combat Purdue’s height down low. The moves paid off as the Terps were able to lock down the paint on defense — the same couldn’t be said for the perimeter.

Marial played a big part of doing so, looking better than he has all season. In one instance, he forced Boilermakers star Trevion Williams to miss on a tough fadeaway jumper while they matched up one on one in the post. The Maryland sophomore then sprinted down the court with ease, got the ball and drew the foul from Williams down low.

“Our post defense was terrific,” Turgeon said. “I thought Chol was good defensively. I also thought he was he was serviceable offensively [He] got to the foul line, had a layup, couple pick-and-pop wide open threes. So he’ll get more comfortable with that.”

He missed his three shots from the floor, but went 3-of-4 from the free-throw line and was able to put himself in position for open looks, which is a positive sign for the future. Marial played a season-high 12 minutes and likely would have played more if he didn’t wind up with three fouls early in the second half.

By the end of the game, Darryl Morsell, who came off the bench for the first time this year, had played more minutes than Hamilton. Though the minutes per player Friday were pretty consistent with the last three games, Turgeon found a new lineup he liked as the team tried to mount the comeback down the stretch, with the small-ball combination of Ayala, Wiggins, Morsell, Hart and Scott seeing the most success.

“I think that lineup works really well for us because we can run in transition, we can rebound, there’s always a mismatch, and there’s just a lot of spots and holes when we’re on offense that we can go to,” Wiggins said.

Big Ten play is off to a rocky start

After falling to Rutgers and Purdue, Maryland is 0-2 to start Big Ten play for the first time. The program hadn’t started conference play with two losses since the 2010-11 season, which was Gary Williams’ last as head coach.

While the Terps have shown more life in the past two games than they did in the first loss of the year to Clemson, they simply haven’t shown the ability to step up to the task when it matters most. A prime example of that against the Boilermakers was the sheer inability to make good on free opportunities at the charity stripe; Maryland went 10-for-21 (48%) on free-throw attempts.

The team has looked good in spurts, able to piece together several key runs throughout its two conference games, but there needs to be more consistency if it wants to get in the win column.

“We have guys who want to win, we have guys who show their passion on the court and play hard,” Wiggins said. “But I mean, it’s tough. Every single game we get a team who who plays their best, they make shots. And this team, you got to give them credit, they made a lot of shots today.”

The Terps have arguably their toughest stretch of the season ahead, set to face ranked teams in four of their five next games. Next week, the team travels to face No. 9 Wisconsin on Monday and then takes on No. 19 Michigan at home on New Year’s Eve.

After that comes three games in one week, all of which will be huge tests. On Jan. 4, Maryland faces Indiana, which isn’t ranked but received 53 votes in the latest AP Top 25 before falling to Northwestern. The squad then travels home for its most challenging contest this season against No. 4 Iowa on Jan. 7. The brutal sequence will be capped off by a trip to No. 18 Illinois on Jan. 10.

Let’s remember, this is a conference where upsets are a plenty. The question is whether this Maryland team has the makeup and mentality to pull them off, because in the Big Ten this season that’s the only way to survive.