In a game that seemed to represent their post-season hard shell attitude, the Maryland Terrapins held off the Alabama Crimson Tide to win a taut and tense thriller on the road in the NIT quarterfinals 58-57. The win advanced the Terps to the NIT semi-finals next week at Madison Square Garden against an opponent to be determined in tomorrow’s Iowa-Virginia matchup.
The game offered all of the ebb and flow that most great post-season games offer and came complete with unlikely heroes and compelling late game possessions. It featured two teams who rarely play one another yet are remarkably similar- both are big, strong and athletic and rely largely on their defensive talents to win close games.
Ultimately it was a timely defensive stop on the game’s last possession that gave Maryland a win in front of a rabid full house at the Coleman Coliseum.
Given the defensive prowess of both teams the events of the first three minutes of the game were a surprise as the Terps scored ten quick points to seize a 10-5 lead. As has been the case for most of the past three weeks, guard Dez Wells was the source of most of that early success as he successfully sliced and diced the Tide defense on his way to buckets in transition.
Then the scoring stopped almost as suddenly as it had started.
Almost inconceivably, the Terps went from the 17:24 mark of that first half to the 9:36 mark without a single point. That kind of drought – especially by a team that ended up winning the game- is almost unheard of. Fortunately, Alabama was equally awful on offense and only scored eight points.
From the point that Alex Len finally dropped in two free throws at that 9:36 mark right up until halftime, the Terps may have played their best ball of the season. Wells continued his assault on the Tide defense but for those last nine minutes he was joined by a motivated Len and a couple of huge plays off the Maryland bench by freshman Jake Layman. He had one steal that led to points during the prolonged run as well as a sweet Rajon Rando -like okie doke in transition. Then with just a minute remaining in the half, he stole an Alabama outlet pass and flew to the basket where he threw down a huge dunk on Alabama center Nick Jacobs. The dunk gave Maryland a 31-24 lead and accounted for the final tally of the first half.
Layman was far from done.
As one could have predicted between two evenly matched teams, the second half was a street fight.
Looking to keep their season alive, the Tide came out far more aggressively in the second half and seemed to benefit by the officials letting both teams maul each other.
Alabama would cut into the lead only to have Maryland respond. In most cases it was Len who did the damage and he was dominant around the basket when he was in the game. When Len picked up his fourth foul with just over six minutes remaining the Terps led 48-44. Then the Tide scored three points to cut the lead to one and the Terps were wobbling.
Cue the unlikely heroes.
On the next possession junior guard Pe’Shon Howard swished a huge three to give the Terps some temporary breathing room. After a quick Tide bucket it was Layman again who came to the rescue. He calmly nailed back to back triples on the ensuing possessions and, all of a sudden, the lead was back to eight at 57-49.
Anybody who follows this band of Terps knows that they will go through some minutes where watching them play is like enduring Chinese water torture. Unfortunately that happened in the last three minutes again and Alabama simply would not go away.
When Len made one free throw with two minutes left the Terps seemed to be in good shape, up 58-52 but a three point play by Jacobs and a layup by all-SEC guard Trevor Releford made it 58-57 with just 45 ticks left.
Len was fouled on next possession but missed both foul shots and the ball – and the game- were there for Alabama’s taking.
Inbounding at halfcourt with 19 seconds remaining, the Tide may have waited too long to attack the basket and Len swatted a layup attempt by Rodney Cooper into the third row with just three seconds remaining. Alabama guard Trevor Lacey got a great look at the hoop at the buzzer but the shot rebounded high as the buzzer sounded and fell harmlessly to the floor.
And a happy band of black-clad Turtles could finally celebrate a meaningful, hard-fought win in a difficult setting.
The win was huge for so many reasons. In addition to the all-expense paid trip to the world’s best known sports venue (or, as Alex Len said on our postgame show, “the greatest freaking arena in the world”), it improved the Maryland record to 25-12 and continued a three week run of impressive and resourceful play. They won without the services of freshman guard Seth Allen, lost for the season to a broken hand in practice over the weekend.
On to the Big Apple…