By Chris Knoche
Since the beginning of practice in mid-October, Marylands Mark Turgeon has been stressing the need to see incremental improvement from his young team.
Tonight he saw itit just wasnt enough.
For 35-plus minutes his Terrapins battled tooth and nail with the University of Illinois Fighting Illini only to come up short in the end. The 71-62 loss to the Illini dropped the Terps to 3-3 on the young season while the victors improved to a perfect 7-0.
Maryland was led in defeat by sophomore guard Terrell Stoglin and his 25 points. Junior James Padgett contributed 16 points and 5 rebounds to the cause. The loss also ended a streak of six consecutive wins for Maryland in the ACCBig Ten Challenge and dropped their all-time record in the made for TV event to 9-4.
Maryland lost to an Illinois team that was a little more cerebral, a little more trusting of their teammates and a little tougher when they needed it most. For a Terp team that has little margin for error against good teams they can take brief consolation from the effort they put forth but great frustration in a couple of areas that could have made a major difference in the outcome of the game free throw shooting and rebounding. For the game the Terps shot 15-25 from the line and many of their misses came at directional junctures. The Illini, on the other hand were not only good, they were virtually historically good from the charity stripe. They shot 18-20 but rebounded both of their misses and converted the opportunity. As a result, they effectively scored 22 points on 20 free throws. Let me know if youve ever seen that before.
Rebounding was another area of concern against a big, strong Big Ten team. In the first half the Terps were able to keep the taller Illini off of the glass and it was a big part in being able to control the half. In the second half the Terps were not as fortunate and it proved to have a major part in their undoing.
After Illinois scored the first basket of the game for a 2-0 lead Maryland responded with 8 consecutive points (six from Padgett) to gain a lead they would keep the entire half.
There were two critical junctures in that half. The first came with the Terps up 20-11 and playing better than they had all season. With 10:11 left to play in the half, Stoglin went to the line for two free throws to extend the lead to double digits. Instead, he missed both attempts and the visitors capitalized. Illinois scored 9 consecutive points to tie the lead at 20.
Maryland then went on a 14-5 run over the next five minutes to extend the lead back to 9 at 34-25 with 1:38 to play but the Illini responded from that point. At halftime a lead that could easily have been double digits had been pared to just 35-31 by the visitors and there was no doubt that each team went to the locker room with a different feel; Maryland with the notion of what should have been and Illinois feeling fortunate to be within hailing distance of a Maryland team that might have played its best half of the season.
With the exception of their game against Colorado, the first portion of the second half has presented problems for the Terps this season. Whether because of depth issues or a temporary lack of focus at that point they have struggled to increase leads or, contrarily, cut into them.
Tonight would be no different.
After a Stoglin leaner temporarily expanded the lead to 37-31 barely two minutes into the second half, Illinois responded in a big way. They scored six points in just over a minute to tie the game at 37 with 16:59 remaining and took the lead for good 42-41 at the 14:27 mark on a three pointer by the unerring Sam Maniscalco, the Illini point guard. Between the 16:20 mark and the 11:37 mark Maryland was scoreless.
Even with that, a Padgett dunk out of the media timeout at 11:37 made the score just 47-43 and the Terps had every chance to play their way back into the game. They cut the lead to one point with 9:33 to play and then again with 8:42 remaining. The Illini lead was only 4 at 61-57 with just 2:23 remaining when Maniscalco finished a tough left-handed layup in traffic to extend the lead to six and the Terps never seemed to have a chance from that point.
Maniscalco totaled 24 points for the game and had 11 of those in the final 5:29. He seemed to hit a big shot at every critical juncture for his team and finished the game a gaudy 5-8 from the three point line and a perfect 7-7 from the free throw line.
Turgeon has stressed incremental improvement and probably got the best game of the season out of his team. It was a compelling, bruising affair that left the Terps first year coach steamed after the game about what might have been. Each game they seem to play better for longer and this was no exception and may have represented a solid step forward for his team.
The problem is it simply was not enough tonight.