Darryl Morsell raised and slapped his hand against his leg in frustration, letting out an exclamation in disgust as he walked off the court for a timeout with 1:42 left against Penn State.
The Terps, trailing by five points, had just fumbled two golden opportunities to cut into their deficit late thanks to sloppy play on the offensive end, a constant throughout the night. The senior guard had just tried to poke the ball free from Penn State guard Jamari Wheeler to get his team going again, but picked up a foul.
Aaron Wiggins first grabbed the ball mid-air to force a turnover, but Donta Scott couldn’t connect on a pass with Hakim Hart down low, giving the ball back to Penn State. Right before that, Hart had missed a fast break layup on another chance off of a turnover.
Maryland was unable to execute all evening long, contributing to one of its ugliest offensive showings of the season in a 55-50 loss at Penn State Friday night.
“I mean I really can’t explain [my reaction]. You saw the game, you saw how difficult it was for us to score and those were easy opportunities that I felt we should’ve scored on,” Morsell said. “ I was upset, it was late game. But I still trust my guys. We made the right plays on those plays, but just didn’t execute.”
Eric Ayala led the Terps in scoring, tying a career-high with 23 points on 6-of-10 shooting and 9-for-9 from the charity stripe. But Ayala proved to be the only Terp to reach double-figures.
The Terps had done an decent job so far this season when it came to taking care of the basketball coming into Friday’s contest, turning the ball over just 10.9 times per game, but Penn State quickly proved to be a different animal than any the team had seen yet.
The Nittany Lions currently lead the Big Ten in forcing turnovers at 14.5 per game and wasted no time in throwing the Terps through the ringer. They immediately put pressure on the ballhandler each time Maryland tried to bring the ball up the floor, with forward Seth Lundy giving Eric Ayala no room to breathe whenever he looked to receive an inbound pass.
Whether they were forced or self-inflicted wounds, Maryland committed seven turnovers in the first ten minutes of play. The Terps ended with 16 in the contest, tying a season-high.
“We turned the ball over too much throughout the entire game,” Morsell said. “Credit to Penn State, they played great defense. The way that they play defense is definitely different. They do a lot of switching. A lot of flying around.”
The Terps’ turnover problems were compounded by a poor first half shooting display, marking the third straight game in which Maryland has struggled offensively out of the gate. The team has averaged just 22 points per first half over its last two games, with Friday’s performance just barely clearing that figure.
“We missed a couple. We’ll be better at making shots,” Ayala said. “In a game like that when we’re not making shots and we’re guarding like that, we gotta keep the turnovers down as best we can.”
However, Maryland fell back on what’s consistently been its biggest strength all season: its defense. The Terps held their opponent scoreless for a stretch lasting nearly seven minutes in the first half, allowing the offense to go on a 7-0 run over a four minute span to retake the lead at 9-7.
“We battled. Defensively, we were terrific,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. Our defense gave us a chance to win.”
The Terps defense put forth one of its stronger defensive showings in the first half, holding Penn State to a season-low scoring total after the first 20 minutes at just 23 total points. Though, to be fair, the Nittany Lions couldn’t even hit open shots.
The Maryland offense began to loosen up thanks to the strong spell on the defensive end, as the team committed to attacking Penn State’s undersized big men at the rim. Ayala got himself on the board with a right-handed drive and finish, with Donta Scott following it up with a score at the rim himself on the next possession.
Ayala and Scott shouldered most the load offensively for Maryland from that point on, combining for 17 of the team’s 23 first half points.
Ayala scored six points on consecutive possessions, notching triples both the traditional way with an and-one before breaking down his defender off the dribble and sinking a step-back three. Scott laid home an and-one himself two minutes later, putting the Terps ahead 21-14 with just over three minutes remaining.
It was a 12-0 run in all for Maryland, but the Nittany Lions soon responded with a run of their own. Penn State went on to score nine unanswered points down the stretch of the first frame, punctuated by a pull-up two-point jumper from Izaiah Brockington to knot things at 23 and bring an ugly half of basketball to a merciful end.
The Terps went scoreless for the last 2:34 of the half to allow the Nittany Lion run, turning the ball over three times with only one attempted shot, which missed.
Maryland returned to the floor looking just as out-of-sync as it did when it left, turning the ball over again within the first minute of the second half. Jairus Hamilton provided some much needed scoring after starting the second half on the floor, finishing through contact at the rim twice while drawing a whistle from the official on each for and-ones.
Ayala sank another three-pointer from the top of the key a minute later, but the offense still struggled to keep its head above water without much consistent execution possession-to-possession, struggling to generate any separation on the scoreboard in the opening six minutes of the half.
Maryland’s stop-and-start offense continued to be a revolving door in regard to scoring contributions, with Darryl Morsell being the next to try his luck at putting some points on the board. The senior guard tipped home an offensive rebound for his fourth and fifth points of the night, throwing down a thunderous two-handed slam a possession later off the feed from Aaron Wiggins to bring the Terps even at 36-36 with 12:07 left.
But a lack any steady scoring option meant it was only a matter of time before Penn State began clicking on offense, as the Nittany Lions started to pull away as the half neared its midway point. With the Terps going small with Scott at center for the better part of the half, Penn State managed to go on a 7-0 run, punctuated by junior guard Sam Sessoms taking Scott off the dribble and to the rim to give the Nittany Lions their largest lead at 43-36.
The Terps managed to cut the deficit in half by the under-eight minute media timeout, but needed to execute at a significantly higher level if they wanted to leave the Bryce Jordan Center with a victory. However that wasn’t the case.
The Nittany Lion offense again came roaring back, as the Terps’ field goal drought of over three minutes allowed Penn State to re-establish its lead. Trailing by four, sophomore guard Hakim Hart got his own rebound off a missed lay-up and again went to the rim, only to come up short again.
On the next Penn State possession, junior guard Myles Dread curled around a screen on the wing and buried the three-pointer, putting his team back up 53-46 with 4:34 left.
And despite still being within striking distance in the closing moments, Maryland simply could not take advantage of the opportunities Penn State gave them. A successful lay-in from Hart at least would have made it a one possession game, but nothing bounced Maryland’s way on Friday, going the final 7:32 of the game without a field goal to drop its fifth straight game to Penn State on the road.
“You get steals, you should get layups,” Turgeon said. “We missed a wide open three in front of our bench and we missed the layup, the score would have been tied 53. But we missed them.”
Three Things to Know
1. The Terps can’t take care of the ball in Happy Valley. Last season’s road loss to Penn State marked Maryland’s worst game of the season in regard to turnovers, and the same held true in Friday’s contest. The team’s 2019-20 season-high of 20 turnovers against the Nittany Lions was followed up by 16 total giveaways tonight, the most this year’s team has had in a game since Jan. 7 against Iowa.
2. Rebounding was a tale of two halves. Maryland held a 18-15 advantage on the boards heading into the halftime break, finally matched against a team with similar height down low. But that flipped completely in the second half. Penn State completely outmatched the Terps on the boards in the final frame, out-rebounding them 25-11 to end the game with a total 40-29 advantage.
3. Aaron Wiggins couldn’t get on track. After notching 18 points in consecutive games, Wiggins was unable to get much of any offense going throughout Friday’s contest. He finished the first half without a field goal, missing all four of his attempts before finally getting on the board at the 9:19 mark of the second half.
He finished with only two points on the night, his lowest scoring outing since being held scoreless Jan. 10, 2020 against Iowa.