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Three takeaways from Maryland men’s basketball’s loss to Penn State

Despite its defensive efforts, the Terps struggled on offense all night long.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland men’s basketball suffered a 55-50 loss to Penn State Friday night, marking the team’s fifth straight loss in State College, Pennsylvania.

With the defeat, the Terps drop to 10-9 on the season and are still without consecutive wins in conference play, in which they hold a 4-8 record. With just seven games left in the regular season, Maryland, currently on the bubble, will need to change that habit if it wants a shot at the NCAA Tournament.

“We got to get better at execution,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We got to get better with a lot of things, but we are who we are and we’ve gotten better. Our ceiling’s still up there, we can still get better. So that’s what we just got to keep trying to do as coaches.”

Here are my three biggest takeaways from the defeat.

Even good defense can’t make up for Maryland’s offense

Turgeon and players have repeatedly said that the key to team’s success is defense and that they can rely on this aspect of their game to pull out victories when the offense is struggling, but the offense was so disjointed Friday night that the defensive effort didn’t matter.

The Terps struggled tremendously to get anything going from the opening tip, missing all but one of their first eight shots and turning the ball over five times in the first four minutes.

“They way they play defense is definitely different,” senior guard Darryl Morsell said. “They do a lot of switching, a lot of flying around, so it took a little bit to adjust to.”

But the Terps never really adjusted.

They finished with a season-low in points (50), field goals (17) and made three-pointers (3), scoring on just 24 of their 65 possessions. The team also turned the ball over 16 times, which is tied for the most in a game this season.

“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,” junior guard Eric Ayala said.

This was particularly an issue down the stretch. Maryland only allowed Penn State to make one of its last nine shots, holding the team without a field goal for the last 4:32 of play. But the Terps couldn’t make the most of prime opportunities, even on open looks and fast breaks, and didn’t make a field goal for the last 7:32 of the game. The chance for victory was there for the taking, but the offense didn’t show up when it mattered most.

Though Friday night was particularly bad, Maryland has been horrid on offense throughout Big Ten play, in which the team is averaging 41.5% shooting from the field and 33.1% from deep. The Terps have averaged just 62.8 points per game in such matchups, which ranks dead last in the conference.

The defense has stood out as the key to the team’s four victories in conference play, but as Friday night showed, that isn’t always enough.

The Terps have held opponents below 65 points in seven conference games, but they have only won four of those matchups. The team’s offensive performance has been the difference between the win and loss column.

In each of the three losses (Indiana, Wisconsin, Penn State), all of which were decided by under 10 points, Maryland shot less than 39% from the field and less than 31% from deep. Across those three games, the Terps shot 36.6% on field goals and 26.4% on three-pointers.

In each of the four wins (Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin), Maryland shot at least 40% from the field and 34.8% from deep. Across those four games, the Terps shot 44.4% on field goals and 36.5% on triples.

Maryland’s defense can only get the team so far; even a little more offensive production could make a world of difference. If the team wants a shot at the NCAA Tournament, it will need to start making shots in crucial moments.

The Terps couldn’t take advantage of a favorable matchup down low

After facing dominant big men down low, such as Kofi Cockburn, Hunter Dickinson, Luka Garza and Treivon Williams, throughout Big Ten play, Maryland’s forwards finally seemed to be getting a break.

The Penn State matchup was just the second time this season that Maryland didn’t have to face someone 6-foot-11 or taller down low. The only other matchup was Indiana, in which the tallest player was 6-foot-9 Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is third in the conference in both scoring and rebounding.

As such, Friday night was the Terps’ first chance to face a weaker presence down low. Nittany Lion John Harrar is only 6-foot-9, and though he averaged 8.1 rebounds per game coming into the contest, he and the Nittany Lions have struggled to defend the interior all season.

Penn State allows conference opponents to make 56.3% of their two-point attempts, which is 316th out of 351 Division I teams, per KenPom. And prior to the matchup, the Nittany Lions had allowed Big Ten foes an average 37.2 points in the paint per game.

As such, this seemed like a gift-wrapped opportunity. But, like much throughout the game, Maryland couldn’t take advantage.

The Terps made just 17 of their 46 two-point attempts (36.96%), which included five misses inside in the last six minutes. They also only managed 28 points in the paint, which is tied for the second lowest the Nittany Lions have given up in conference play.

Rebounding was a major issue as well, with Penn State ending the night with a 40-29 advantage on the boards, including 11 offensive rebounds that led to 11 second chance points. Harrar had 12 rebounds, his second-most all season.

“I thought we were trying to box out, we just couldn’t get the kid boxed out,” Turgeon said.

Turgeon also said after the game that the team couldn’t struggled to get rebounds because of their size, but that wasn’t much of a factor, for once. And if it was, then Galin Smith probably should have played more than nine minutes — his least amount of time spent on the floor since Dec. 25. Even so, Harrar only played 28 minutes, leaving Penn State without anyone over 6-foot-8 for 12 minutes.

Eric Ayala was a lone bright spot

After sealing Maryland’s win over No. 24 Purdue with some key plays late earlier in the week, Ayala was once again a key source of offense Friday — well, maybe the only one.

The junior guard finished with 23 points, which accounted for 46% of the team’s production and tied his career high. He shot 6-of-11 from the field, made all of his nine shots at the charity stripe and went 2-for-6 on three-point attempts.

The rest of the team combined made just 11 of its 37 field goal attempts (29.7%), including one make from deep on 11 tries, good for a mere 9%.

“Eric was our go-to guy,” Turgeon said. “Eric really was the only guy we felt like could make some shots, so we were trying to play through him.”

Though the rest of the team’s struggles were ultimately too much to overcome, Ayala played a key role in getting the Terps’ offense going for a short while in the first half. He had eight of the team’s points on a 12-3 run over four minutes that turned an 11-9 Maryland deficit into a 23-14 advantage. However, Penn State took control from there and the Terps didn’t score for nearly three minutes leading up to the halftime break, at which point the game was tied at 23-23.

After his 10-point first half performance, Ayala had 13 in the final frame, making him the only Maryland player with more than four points in the half.

Though it didn’t account for a win Friday night, Ayala has been an offensive firepower across his last two performances. Across those games, he’s scored 39 points on 10-of-19 (52.6%) shooting from the floor and a 5-of-12 mark (41.7%) from deep, as well as making 14 of his 15 shots at the free-throw line.