Three takeaways from Maryland’s tepid offensive performance at Penn State

(Photo Courtesy of Penn State Athletics.)

As one might expect, being small comes with no favors in a league brimming with post talent. Making a Penn State matchup particularly favorable. Very rarely will Maryland ever meet an equal opponent this season — especially in length. But when Maryland finally got the rare opportunity to aim its sights at a victory against an evenly matched Big Ten foe, they couldn’t deliver — needlessly shooting themselves in the foot.

In its lowest scoring game of the season, Maryland (10-9, 4-8 B1G) totaled just 50 points in a loss allowing Penn State (7-8, 4-7 B1G) to notch a home win that inched it closer to a .500 record, while also adding a new blemish to the Terps dizzying season. And with its ninth loss, Maryland strays further from its NCAA tournament hopes in March.

Here are my three takeaways from Maryland’s loss at Penn State.

Things were really ugly early, and not in typical Maryland fashion. 

The Terps opened this one up with nine points, eight turnovers and just three made field goals in the first 10 minutes before jumping out to a 14-3 run that put distance between the two sides. 

Penn State then returned the favor with its own 7-0 run to complete the half, and set the stage for a more lopsided second period. In a half that included traveling violations, passing to the opposite team and wild scrambling late in the shot clock from both sides, both teams managed to score 23 each despite spending the majority of the period under 10 points. 

“Guys just weren’t locked in offensively,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “We have to do a better job of setting our man up to get open. Not just when the coach draws it up, it’s gotta be a part of basketball and what you do.”

Both sides came out running to begin the following period, but it seemed as if Penn State was running faster. Outside of Eric Ayala, Maryland couldn’t find a scorer to rely on to make shots and build momentum, making the Terps especially easy to defend. 

Without a scorer outside of Ayala, their efforts at minimizing turnovers in the final half, while successful, was largely inconsequential. The Terps initial 40% shooting mark from the field dropped to 30% in the final half and they only managed to hit one three in the final 20 minutes which of course, came from Ayala. 

Maryland is missing a true floor general. 

Perhaps Maryland’s offensive inconsistency is a result of it lacking a true one guard. The turnovers, predictable playmaking and overall lethargic half court offense each reared their ugly heads on Friday, and while these things have clearly been an issue all season, they became especially evident at Happy Valley — a location where Maryland has historically struggled. 

Throughout the season, Ayala, Darryl Morsell, and Hakim Hart have been sharing point guard duties, and while this game plan comes with its ebbs and flows, it has been relatively effective. Yet when Maryland visited one of the weaker defensive teams in the conference, one that has had almost no significant success against guard heavy squads, they folded. 

“Guards gotta work harder to get open for bigs, we gotta take our time,” Morsell said. “And I think it all starts with me, I probably had the most turnovers.” 

Morsell was tied with Hart for the most, each committing four turnovers. Hart’s four turnovers all came in the first half, with his final two coming in Maryland’s final two possessions. Penn State capitalized by evening up the score at 23 before halftime, making the final half a mulligan to a hideous opening. 

But the most detrimental giveaway was Morsell’s fourth. At the 10:36 mark in the second half, his charge translated to a multiple possession Penn State lead, which the Terps had to spend valuable time battling back from. 

The Nittany Lions nearly led by 10 points in the half because of giveaways, but Ayala’s points at the charity stripe kept the Terps within reach. Ayala had minimal success at the point guard position in spite of his teams poor showing, but spent the bulk of his time scoring as opposed committing to typical point guard duties.

Aaron Wiggins, who plays guard and often distributes had an off-day as well, converting just one of his 11 field goal attempts. Wiggins also missed all four of his three point attempts and failed to get to the line. Still, his season-low two-point performance came with some defensive upside in the form of two blocks and three steals.

The options Maryland has at guard aren’t exactly fit to be floor generals. Unless it’s Morsell, who’s a defensive minded wing, there’s a good chance the guy bringing the ball up court is concerned more with shooting than setting up his teammates. So with the Terps worst offensive performance of the season behind them, it’s clear they still have a long way to go in figuring out their half court woes. And it’s possible it starts with having a reliable and disciplined point guard. 

Even through all the ugly, Eric Ayala looked great. 

Beyond the needless mishaps by the rest of the team on offense and a handful of mental lapses on defense, it’s fair to say Ayala had the best offensive performance of the game between the two teams. 

His 23 points on 54% shooting lead all scorers for the contest and matched his career high, but his efforts were complimented by a nine-point performance from Donta Scott and a combined 10-point outing from Morsell and Hart, who also tallied a combined 8 turnovers. 

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

And in relief of an otherwise absent supporting cast, Ayala did just about everything on offense — when he could. He gave a glimpse of his offensive prowess in the first half with a size-up move followed by a hesitation, punctuated with a step-back to create a wide open three, giving Maryland its first two possession lead. 

The junior guard attacked the basket too, his most notable attempt just a possession before his shifty triple. This time he found himself banging into two Penn State defenders, one immediately after the other, before converting a flailing layup attempt with the foul. 

His fortunes on offense continued in the second half, but mainly at the line as the Nittany Lions refused to allow another Ayala-led Maryland victory. Ayala drained 8 of his 9 made free throws in the final period and was doing things by himself in a game that could’ve been easily secured with another surefire scorer.

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