Darryl Morsell, Reese Mona, and Galin Smith were given what looks to be their final send-off as seniors at XFINITY Center. But the circumstances of the season along with the Big Ten tournament seeding that was on the line, left little room for sentiment.
However, the loss — while untimely and somewhat unlucky — give the Terps plenty to think about heading into the postseason. Maryland’s (15-12, 9-11 B1G) 66-61 fall to Penn State (10-13, 7-12 B1G) put it at seed No. 8 for the Big Ten tournament and resulted in an unsavory finish to this year’s senior night game.
“You have losses in life that are devastating. And this is one of them,” head coach Mark Turgeon said, “A lot of tears in the locker room.”
Here are my three takeaways from the loss.
A hot start on both ends for Maryland.
A 12-0 run to start wasn’t exactly enough to get the job done against this pesky, gritty Penn State squad. However, it was certainly enough to make the Nittany Lions uphill battle for the 35 minutes that followed, quite troublesome. A jumper and a three by Aaron Wiggins, followed by a pair of jumpers from Morsell, capped off with a triple by Donta Scott got Maryland off on an impressive start.
Vitalized by the early push, the Terps left the first half with a 10-point lead and were able to capture a 16-point lead before the close of the opening 20 minutes. Three-point shooting jolted Maryland up 14 again midway through the second half before things began to fall apart.
“We were playing well,” Turgeon said. “To get up 50-36, we were really playing well. And then it just kind of stopped.”
The defense, as it had throughout the season, was remarkably formidable as well. They forced Penn State’s sneaky three-point offense to miss its first nine field goals. The offense in the first half was reduced to just nine converted field goals for the entirety of the period as Seth Lundy led the way with six of them on his way to scoring 14 points before halftime.
The past three contests for Maryland are perfect examples of how vital a blistering start can be for the Terps. Though each opening multiple possession run was against fringe tournament teams — or worse — each team has some familiarity with freezing scorching hot offenses.
Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan State have dealt blows to the Big Ten’s best. And although Maryland is 1-for-3 when starting strong for the past three, there should be some optimism for how pivotal these starts can be as players wear down — particularly when Maryland’s defense is stout for a full 40 minutes.
Aaron Wiggins is special and his success is crucial.
Wiggins’ progression would’ve been useful in December. But what better time to heat up than March? The junior wing put on his usual flashy scoring display: the midrange footwork, smooth finishing and off-ball movement that he’s proven capable of since February. Wiggins also added to the stat sheet with his hounding work on the glass. His 15 points and 10 rebounds led Maryland in both categories.
As amazing as his play was, it was practically absent in the final half and nowhere to be found in the final 10 minutes. As Wiggins play began to waver, so did the team’s — and the results were detrimental. Wiggins turned the ball over three times in the span of four possessions and scored six points to the tune of a 40% field goal percentage.
Maryland shot 38% from the floor alongside him and committed a total eight turnovers after shooting over 50% along with just five turnovers the half before. With Wiggins cold, Maryland resorted to deferring to the play of Ayala, and while he managed to put something through the hoop, the results were minimal and the Nittany Lions were marching.
“You can see the momentum switch on and you can see the whole flow of the game changing but as a player you got to have the mentality,” Wiggins said. “You got to have the mental toughness to just say like, you know, let’s get back to what got us that lead.”
Similar to how Penn State’s offense was spearheaded by the crafty play of Lundy, Maryland’s offense lives and dies by the work of Wiggins. And in his quietest half in a long time, Maryland’s offense fell flat in crunch-time.
Maryland lost the winning formula and it needs to recapture it.
With the amount of losses and notable wins that Maryland has under its belt, Turgeon and his athletes should have a good picture of what works and what doesn’t. For now, Maryland has the basics. The offense runs through Wiggins, while the defense is more of a concerted undertaking, led by Morsell.
But what does it all mean if they can’t finish?
What was exciting and promising in the late February stretch that ultimately pushed Maryland closer to clinching an NCAA tournament ticket, has seemingly vanished. It’s back to the drawing board for the Terps and they have to find an answer to their inconsistencies as quickly as possible. Rebounding and confidence, two aspects Maryland’s game lacked late in the contest, should be at the top of the list as the postseason ensues.
Confidence was an element of Maryland’s game Turgeon noted diminished as the lead did and as Penn State played harder. Rebounding was the nail in the coffin for Maryland, who was out-rebounded by the Nittany Lions the entire night. Penn State grabbed 10 offensive boards to one Maryland offensive rebound — boards that translated to 12 second-chance points.
“It gets frustrating and we’re small, we’re different. But it’s no excuse [we got] guys standing in quicksand,” Turgeon said.
If not things aren’t cleared up quickly, a first round out, or an early tournament embarrassment is definitely in the cards for this year’s woefully undersized Terps squad.
“We just got to wake up tomorrow and learn from it, try to get our confidence back,” Turgeon said. “It’s been fighting confidence all year individually and as a team, you just got to try to get it back and play loose and try to enjoy the season.”